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International Volunteer Managers Day is tomorrow and the theme for 2020 is: What’s next?

I’ll tell you what’s next. Change-big, big, gargantuan change, that’s what’s next. Sweeping changes, whether we initiate them by adjusting volunteer programs, or they occur naturally in spite of what we do. But changes in volunteerism have been drip, dripping in for years and the pandemic has merely loosened the change valve and allowed a wave of changes to gush in.

Shall we get red in the face and shout?

So, do we simply amplify our change voices?

Should we yell in the next meeting that “volunteers need respect and true recognition, you fools, not balloons and cute sayings?” Scream over the intercom that “volunteers need meaningful roles, people” and hope that sticks? Put up posters with sayings like “volunteers are human beings, not tools,” or “the volunteer exodus is real?”

Starting where change must first begin: with our approach to enacting change

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
– Lao Tzu

What is your perception of yourself? Well, that’s easy, right? Let’s see, I’m

  • hardworking
  • dedicated
  • kind
  • creative
  • forward thinking
  • humble
  • a team player
  • a believer in possibilities

But what is your reputation (not self-identity) within your organization?

Your self-identity may not be the same as your reputation. You know you possess all those wonderful traits, but how do you exhibit them at work? Or, could it be that (as I’ve experienced more times than I care to admit) what seems obvious is not obvious at all?

Maybe your humility is viewed as weakness. Maybe your kindness is viewed as a lack of gumption. Maybe all of your hard work behind the scenes is not seen at all. Maybe your dedication is viewed as having fun with volunteers. Maybe your forward thinking is perceived as complaining.

Shouting won’t change the perception of who we are and the importance of our volunteer programs

Think about a person you respect and/or admire. When they say something you listen, right? Now think about a person you’re ambivalent about. What happens when they say something? Do you listen with the same intent? Probably not.

Change will never happen until people want to hear what we have to say

We can argue and advocate all we want, but if our reputation hinders us, people won’t listen deeply to understand what we are saying. And we must get through to our organizations. Why? Because volunteers are rapidly changing, irrespective of Covid’s impact, and we know that organizations must adapt to sustain volunteering.

For years, volunteers have been changing because:

  • they look for flexibility
  • they need meaningful roles
  • they want instant access
  • they want to have say in what they do
  • they crave being told how they’ve impacted missions
  • they hate red tape
  • they demand transparency
  • they want to know more about organizational inner workings
  • they don’t feel bad about leaving for better opportunities
  • they want to be educated and more involved
  • they want to feel totally integrated
  • they want to use their skills, not be slotted into tedious roles
  • they want to create an identity within the organization
  • they want more control over their volunteering
  • they want to be on an even par with donors
  • they want to be recognized for their additional support outside of their recorded volunteer hours

That’s a butt-load of changes, isn’t it? These changes are not new; they’ve been coming for years and now, they’re here in our laps. So, we can shout all we want, but we need listeners.

Who are we in the nonprofit world?

Take a moment and think about perceptions. Look at the behaviors that might create the wrong perception. Do you ever…

  • stay quiet in meetings
  • phrase your advocacy in terms such as “but, volunteers don’t want to do that.”
  • hang back so volunteers are in the spotlight
  • assume everyone sees how hard you work
  • look harried at times
  • get down or mad because no one seems to get it
  • react defensively when staff doesn’t respect volunteers
  • use phrases like, “I’m putting out fires”
  • talk about “having fun with the volunteers”
  • avoid confrontations with challenging volunteers
  • just sit back and hope for the best

Now, remove yourself and picture a random person (let’s call her Matilda) exhibiting any of the above behaviors. What would your perception of Matilda be? What would Matilda’s reputation at work be like? Would she be thought of as a visionary, a leader, a go-getter, an innovator, a solutions gal?

So, for International Volunteer Managers Day, the “what’s next” question for me means this: Forget for a minute all that needs to change when engaging volunteers and think about how we can make change happen.

What needs to change is our self-identities as innovative, mission-supporting, forward thinking, visionary people must match our reputations within our organizations.

Once we are viewed in the way we self-identify, we can successfully advocate for the changes we seek because people will listen.

Next time: An action plan