Be honest. If a group of 10 year olds wanted to volunteer, would you:

  • scurry to find some crayons?
  • make sure it was on a Saturday when the office was empty cause you don’t want the tykes to bother the staff? (although in reality, you’d love to dump a couple of sticky-handed kids on Gwen in marketing)
  • make up some labor law that prevents children under 26 from entering your organization due to the excessive use of whiteout?
  • fake an allergy to glitter?

Yeah, I used to do all four, and even “touched up” some messy artwork so that when it was tacked up, Malcolm in IT wouldn’t sniff, “what a waste of time.” (it’s a sickness, right?)

In the last VPT podcast, Summer Neiss, coordinator for a K Kids program in Oregon, told us what we already know and tend to just sweep under the rug: There are countless people, including kids, who want to help, but have little luck in finding a place to volunteer.

Collaborative vs. Set Roles

How is this still a thing? I believe it’s because we don’t collaborate with volunteers.

Nope, we dictate to them, we mold them, we fit them into boxes, we cling to a “standard” (what the Holy H is a standard, anyway?) and yet, when no volunteers want what we are offering, we keep searching for more bodies. (and I’m talking about organizations, not volunteer managers. Volunteer managers get it) Hmm, not so efficient, is it?

So, what does collaborative volunteering look like?

Ok, sorry, but I gotta tell you a story.

I was asked to “get volunteers” to restock an activity cart at a nursing home in which there were hospice patients on our program. Problem was, our volunteers weren’t that interested in stocking a cart; silly volunteers wanted to interact with human beings, go figure.

Anyway, I stewed about it, muttering to myself, “why can’t anyone see what absolute garbage (might have used other words) this request is,” and then I stopped my little temper tantrum and decided to go talk to the nursing home myself.

Together, with the activities director, who BTW didn’t want volunteers stocking carts, but asked for real, meaningful help, we collaborated on several programs. The activities director took me on a tour of the nursing home. This was a facility where 98% of the residents were under 60 years old. By no means was this a wealthy place. That tour alone, made me want to work with that director.

Together, with our volunteers’ input, we created several programs, including recording life stories. And oh, the stories those residents had to tell.

But here’s the point. Collaborative volunteering takes away the sizing up of a potential volunteer to see if they would fit into our little mold.

Collaboration is a path to engagement on all sides

Collaborative volunteering is a three way venture. Volunteer, organization and recipient of volunteer time. There’s the sweet spot-> where the three intersect:

Collaboration increases engagement, solves actual challenges in more efficient ways, and moves us forward.

In this time of chaos and change, we can make volunteering better. Like kids volunteering? Why not? Once I quit looking at volunteers fitting into slots, I found myself at a kindergarten, standing there, those 5 and 6 year-old eyes on me, waiting. (Soooooo, I found myself thinking, maybe my speech about terminal illness and dying, the one that gets right to the heartstrings isn’t the right approach here. Huh.) And boom, I had to wiggle out of my box and see things differently.

When we work with, not at volunteers and recipients of volunteer involvement, we create something organic that is structured to work for everyone. And honestly, when collaboration is encouraged, the burden on our overworked brains eases because we don’t have to think of everything. (you can put that super human cloak aside)

Change is upon us right now and it’s challenging, but it can open up a whole new way of seeing things.

Collaborative volunteering can ease us into a new age where, because everyone participates in the system, the system doesn’t become the dictator.