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Economist William Forster Lloyd, in his 1833 “Tragedy of the Commons” speculated that when pastureland (the commons) is hoarded, over-grazing occurs, dooming the commons to depletion.

Volunteer sustainability is radically different from volunteer retention. Sustainability, unlike retention is the ability to maintain a healthy balance while avoiding depletion. Sustainability, as it is being applied to agriculture, economics and ecosystems implementation implies that there is a larger network to be considered. For volunteer management, it implies that resources are hoarded (retention) and depleted by burning out, or alienating volunteers in our quest to hang on to them. For more on sustainability as it applies to volunteers, see my 2017 posts Sustainability and Volunteerism and Innovation and Sustainable Volunteering.


What about the Leader of Volunteers?

But wait, what about the volunteer manager? Who sustains us? Who nurtures and supports us? How do we keep from becoming burned-out or depleted?

The dilemma nonprofits created years ago when setting up the volunteer system extends to volunteer managers. If volunteers are finite resources, we compete with one another to get and keep volunteers. We measure success by numbers of volunteers retained, numbers of hours donated, and money saved, even though we know these are depleting measurements and that volunteer engagement and impact are true indicators of success. Under antiquated notions, we tend to feel like a cog in a wheel, and not the creative drivers of solution-oriented volunteer initiatives.

Sustainability not only applies to volunteers, it applies to the person leading the volunteers. If the volunteer engagement expert feels like they are choking, begging for sustenance, depleted of energy, starved for nutrients, they will wither and quit. The organization will bring in a new volunteer manager, only to deplete that one, and on and on it will go until real change is enacted.

Where is our tribe?

Where do we find nurturing in our profession if it is not readily available at our workstations? Where is our tribe, the people who support and hear us, who accept us and commiserate, who share similar experiences and offer workable solutions? Think of the conferences you’ve attended in-person or online. Did you find sustenance in connecting with other volunteer engagement professionals? Did you feel that nurturing? Did you come away refreshed and not so alone?

Would the world end if we, Leaders of volunteers detached from viewing ourselves as cogs in an organizational wheel, with duties to serve the needs of the organization, no matter what, even if we offer better and more sustainable solutions? Would we be awful people if we shifted some of our alliance away from our immediate ecosystem and towards the larger network (volunteerism)? Would everything collapse if we stopped being loyal to a fault and started relying more on a tribe that supports us?

What happens if we shift our perception and think of ourselves as part of a larger network (volunteerism) serving our communities and the world? Would that actually help us in the long run?

Leader of Volunteers: A desk job or a profession?

Think of professions that have a unique identity, a brotherhood, a camaraderie, a perception, like firefighters, nurses, teachers, military personnel, actors, accountants and so many more. We lump them together instead of thinking of them as just workers in a setting. We think of them as having unique roles to play, skills to possess and challenges to overcome. We perceive them supporting one another, sharing valuable information and banding together to elevate their profession. These professions are a tribe.

Our sustainability lies in creating a united front. It lies in tightening our profession by uniting voices with common goals, practices and contributions to our work. How can we band together?

To change the perception that we are just desk job workers, employed to fulfill the edicts from organizational hierarchy, we must create the larger network, and a purpose higher than slotting volunteers into pre-determined roles. How can we strengthen our tribe?

Everything is local.

Local is the starting point.

  • Join every local volunteer manager peer group and start one if you don’t have one.
  • Band together and share volunteers.
  • Share expenses to bring in speakers.
  • Share successes and adopt effective programs, policies and systems.
  • Band together on service days to do a project.
  • Share/refer corporate partners.
  • Make volunteer recruitment a community process, not an “us vs. the rest of the organizations” process and tout how nurtured volunteers do more.

I know you are already doing these things. So, step 2: We now have to make sure everyone knows we are doing these things, especially every organization’s hierarchy. How?

  • Loudly visit other volunteer managers’ home bases.
  • Ask a volunteer manager from another organization to speak at your team meeting and talk about common challenges and solutions.
  • Refer to successes at other organizations and how you have reached out for help in adopting best practices.
  • Quote other volunteer managers.
  • Show how commonality is beneficial for every mission.
  • Gather examples of successes outside of your walls to illustrate the changes you wish to make.
  • Speak about volunteerism as a community concept instead of just as a means to an organizational end.

Everything is global

Just as in local, sustainability is global.

  • Get as many certs as you can such as the CVA.
  • Join national associations like ALIVE, NCVO etc.
  • Adopt information from global authorities, read journals like Engage and share articles with staff and senior leadership.
  • Create a fact sheet with global statistics on volunteering that show your challenges and solutions are not unique, but part of a larger picture.
  • Band together with other local volunteer managers and invite recognized speakers, or pool money and loudly attend webinars together.
  • Use the knowledge out there. Organizations tend to believe an outside source over the expert in the midst, so use it to your advantage. “Hey, look, this expert is saying what I’ve been saying, or “here are some national statistics to back up my ideas.”

The Leader of Volunteers Tribe

We, Leaders of Volunteers are a tribe. We support, nourish and share with one another. Beyond personal gratification, our banding together to present volunteering as a sustainable community solution will not only sustain volunteers, but will lead to a better understanding and respect for our role in leading volunteers. We’re not desk workers floundering to get and keep volunteers, we’re a profession with bucket loads of tried and true solutions, policies and procedures already tested by others, visions for the future based on real research, and applicable knowledge forged in years of experience. That’s a heck of a tribe.

We, leaders of volunteers are a tribe of good people with much to offer the world. Lean on one another, but not in secret. Lean in the light.