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How much do we “own” volunteer work? Is it all about the legal (and don’t we know, when it comes to anything bad happening on a volunteer’s watch, legal becomes oh-so important). But what of the talents and abilities a volunteer brings? This viral story on TikTok about a woman who watermarked her work (because her boss kept stealing it) has a different lesson, hidden under the obvious one: keeping your work safe. But how does this apply to volunteers?

Shifting Trends To Watch

Before the pandemic, the gig economy and freelance work had already been growing (Freelance work accounts for 35% of the global workforce. Source: financeonline.com), and company loyalty has been shrinking. Today, recognition and personal satisfaction may come from social media followers instead of within the hierarchy of your boss saying you’re a swell employee or volunteer (company or organization). In the above, the woman who watermarked her work was replaced (fired?) and had to find another job, but her video was viewed over 3.7 million times with many “followers” offering support.

The support from 3.7 million peers overwhelmingly helped the sting of retaliation from a few petty bosses Volunteering is not static. It is rapidly changing (despite Covid and sped up by the pandemic) and reflects the societal shifts we are seeing. So will volunteers become freelancers? Gig volunteers? Can they watermark their work? Do they have 2,000 followers from whom they derive support and satisfaction and so, our lovely pats on the back can’t hold a candle to all that positive feedback? Are we foolish to ignore the idea that volunteers have their own intellectual property? (Intellectual property is a broad categorical description for the set of intangible assets owned and legally protected by a company or individual from outside use or implementation without consent) Source: Investopedia.

What Do We Own Exactly?

Our volunteer organizations own our training, our processes, our mentorship, our educational information, our mission goals, our policies, and the work performed under our umbrella, but what about the unique skills, talents and abilities our volunteers bring, such as spot-on empathy, crazy good listening skills, mad technical skills, drool-worthy organizational abilities, soothing voices, or Shakespearean writing chops? I’m pretty sure we don’t teach volunteers those innate abilities, but, we recognize and put those abilities to good use.

While I am not even remotely suggesting that volunteers will rise up and fight to own the volunteer work they do under an organization, I think we can extrapolate some insights from gig work, and the TikTok story, because as society shifts, so will volunteering.

We Have Already Shifted Away From Old Models:

In the ancient past (like 1998), orgs pretty much used these volunteering edicts:

  • we need this, so you will fill this role
  • we determine what works, so take it or leave it
  • we are the experts on our mission focus, so don’t bring untried ideas
  • it’s the tasks we value, not what you bring to our table
  • you are a tool, so act like one

Gig workers create resumes highlighting their skills, experience and talents. Why can’t a volunteer do the same thing? We know that student volunteers are increasingly looking for volunteer opportunities that teach them new skills, allow them to test leadership abilities and give them something in which to enhance their resumes and better themselves. Why don’t we help volunteers create their own Intellectual/Empathetic/Skill Property resumes?

Leaders of Volunteers already recognize volunteers’ unique talents and skills. When interviewing, we look for those talents and note skills when placing volunteers. We worm our way into volunteers’ hearts and minds, not because we’re nosey (tell that to my husband), but because we need to know the volunteer inside and out. What makes them tick? What are they so freaking good at? And ultimately, what makes them an outstanding and effective volunteer?

We are lavish with our praise, especially for a volunteer’s unique contributions. So, who cares? Well, what if volunteers had resumes that highlighted their unique talents, complete with endorsements and examples? What if you were searching for a volunteer who could not only speak Arabic, but had this unique talent of bringing out the buried stories in someone’s life? Wouldn’t finding that volunteer be magic?

I had lists and lists of volunteers and their skills, such as speaking another language, artistic talents, engineering background, etc. But only in my head did I know who was sensitive enough to bond with an aching heart, or was astute enough to keep quiet while someone grieved in their own way. See, intangible stuff is like a beautiful sunrise. We appreciate it, but we don’t always know how to include it in concrete ways. Maybe we should.

No Longer Harnessed

Volunteers have moved away from the “I’m a tool of the organization” mindset. They freelance now, and reject the notion that organizations know best how to use their unique skills. Just look at any unfolding disaster and see the informal volunteers pour out.

Here’s the thing: As volunteer engagement professionals, we scratch our heads and ask ourselves, “how do we harness the enthusiasm we find when disasters strike and how do we keep the volunteer mojo going?” Right there is the problem: Volunteers don’t want to be harnessed. They want to be engaged. And maybe for just a short time or for the adrenaline rush. Maybe for the autonomy or for the comradery found within a social network. Could be for the praise from followers or the immediate satisfaction. Can we supply that going forward? Must we?

There will always be volunteers who fit so well, they stay at an organization. Thankfully, like in a magical fantasy, these volunteers have found the synergy that makes them want to keep at it. But for the rest of the volunteers out there, being harnessed isn’t what they have in mind. For them, it may be about using their unique talents or having some autonomy, or receiving support from social media rather than organizational structure. Does that make them selfish? Not really. And if we are truly interested in diversity and equity, we will open ourselves to a changing society and accept new thoughts. And most times, it means getting out of the way.

What Their Property Means for Us

From Indeed.com: “A gig worker is a professional who, instead of receiving a regular income, receives wages based on the one-time projects, or “gigs,” that they complete. This makes for a flexible work environment, where employers can offer payment for only the work that’s available for a gig worker to perform. The gig economy is the work and career environment in which these professionals work.”

So what does this mean for us? For one thing, we can structure volunteer wanted ads to reflect our commitment to understanding volunteers are unique and we offer reciprocating benefits to volunteering. Instead of advertising “jobs” let’s advertise opportunities. For instance:

  • Engage your empathetic property in this manner (Subtle? Yes.)
  • Bring your unique talents
  • Put your skills to work
  • Enhance your abilities
  • Develop your leadership
  • Grow with us
  • See where this takes you
  • Our clients are unique and so are you

In the future, volunteers will opt for their own volunteering resumes which they may use on social media or for job hunting. No longer will hours or tasks count. I can see a volunteer in the future, recording their experiences on their resumes this way:

  • With my ability to organize and motivate, I enlisted five volunteers to man the food bank during a power outage which resulted in no interruption of service to clients. The volunteer administrator said about me, “Without Jordan’s expertise, 30 families would have gone hungry that day.”
  • Because of my extensive software knowledge and ability to work under pressure, I fixed a bug in the keynote speaker’s presentation at the annual funder’s benefit, thus saving the keynote address. As the keynote speaker quipped, “I’m indebted to Anvi for her skill and especially for her calm during the chaos.”
  • My ability to structure partnerships was called upon when I sat on a task force to brainstorm encouraging STEM in schools. It was my partnering model that created a successful program. According to the principle at Main Street High, “our partnership with Computer Alliance Corp has led to a 30% increase in students choosing STEM universities.”

No Swell Heads

There is a risk in that too much praise can lead to swelled heads, but you know what? That risk already exists, because we praise volunteers a lot (at least in my experience). Somehow, many of us, myself included, feel like praise is a way to keep volunteers coming back. That’s not exactly accurate, so why not be less fluffy and broad and overly effusive about praise and be more specific in pointing out exactly why this volunteer is effective? Praise then becomes tangible and we can more easily attach meaning to something tangible and concrete than to broad phrases like “you’re so good with people.”

To which a volunteer would ask, “how am I so good with people?” Um, well, yeah. Sometimes intangibles are just obvious, which makes them hard to define. It’s the feeling you get when you interview an exceptional volunteer; that “there’s something about this person” tingle that crawls up your arm. So, define it, especially when you see it in action. “Drake has this unique ability to put people immediately at ease.” How is Drake’s empathetic property valuable? Holy moly, how many times did I look for that quality in a volunteer when working with clients who were scared, abused, or closed up? And when I had a Drake in my midst, you bet Drake was on speed dial. (is that a thing anymore?)

The Change Train Keeps Rolling

We realize we must adapt to an ever-changing world. One way we can sustain (as opposed to retain or harness) volunteers is to help them chronicle their unique contributions to our work. By doing so, we give them the tangible evidence they need to find meaning in their volunteering. The two hours are not what it’s about. It’s about the volunteer’s unique ability to listen without judgement or the volunteer’s skill in teaching a child how to draw or the volunteer’s sense of humor that broke through to a client who didn’t get along with other staff or volunteers.

I realize this is not a ground-breaking change. But, as we navigate the changing world, it will be the subtle shifts we make that position us to keep engaging volunteers. Ears to tracks on the ground, we can hear the train coming before it runs over us.

With volunteer appreciation weeks coming up all over the globe, we are determined to appreciate volunteers for numerous reasons. Instead of trying to retain and harness volunteers, let’s engage them by giving them what they seek and appreciate them for the unique intellectual/empathetic/skilled properties they bring.

Those unique properties are what we engage anyway.