Greta’s hand was shaking. Three recent volunteer requests needed her attention. One of her volunteers, Serena, was on the phone with a major problem. End of month reports were due at 5pm and Greta hadn’t gotten the chance to record all the available volunteer hours. Matt, a recent graduate of the latest volunteer orientation was standing in her doorway. He needed a dose of her encouragement. She could feel her heart racing. How would she be able to do it all?
Multi-tasking vs. single or mono-tasking. A 2009 study of heavy media multitaskers versus light media multitaskers from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America revealed that heavy media multitaskers are more likely to be affected by random, non-essential stimuli. And here’s the surprising results. Heavy media multitaskers performed worse than light media multitaskers on a task-switching ability test, instead of performing better as expected. It seems as though multi-tasking actually hinders our ability to concentrate.
There is one tremendous benefit we seldom speak of in describing volunteer contributions. Volunteers are more able to focus on a single task than harried staff who are juggling multiple duties at one time. We, volunteer managers know this from experience. Take Greta in the example above. Can she possibly bring her best to each task in front of her? Will she be able to give her undivided attention to Matt, or to Serena? Will she find the concentration necessary to fill the volunteer tasks? Can she actually clear her mind to gather and record the volunteer hours for her report, not to mention adding the additional stats and stories she knows will make her report more impactful? Or will her attention dart back and forth, splitting her cognitive abilities into tiny, unusable pieces?
No, not with all the external stimuli that fractures her attention. This inability to do superhuman multitasking is one of the reasons we, volunteer managers ask for volunteer help with our workload. We realize that a competent volunteer can do a job that might take us ten times as long to do, because we are in a constant state of being distracted.
We’ve seen it so many times. Give a volunteer a desk and a light and they will power through an assignment. Volunteers possess the trifecta of task accomplishment:
- The will or passion
- The time
- The focus
We need to highlight this overlooked asset and properly showcase it as a benefit derived from embracing volunteer help . We can start by asking staff and senior management these questions:
- If you had two hours a day to focus on one task without interruption, what could you accomplish?
- Do you often feel like you are being pulled in multiple directions and you can’t concentrate?
- What would it mean to you if you could offload a portion of your work so that you could give your attention to the tasks you feel are critical to your job and our mission?
- Do you feel that being pulled in so many directions actually helps or hinders your ability to reach your goals?
And here’s the kicker question:
Do you really think that someone who is passionate about helping, can sit and actually focus on the task at hand and is willing to devote the time to getting it done will do a much poorer job than the person who is continuously pulled in every direction?
If you want to have some fun, at the next staff meeting, ask staff to take out a piece of paper. Announce a phrase, such as “volunteers are great.” Ask staff to spell the phrase out loud while writing their names and addresses on their piece of paper. You’ll get laughs and groans, but it will take a good chunk of time as their brains switch back and forth between tasks. And it won’t help that they are being distracted by the reactions of their fellow staff members around them.
Now point out that this is their reality. Ask them (in all seriousness) why they wouldn’t want a volunteer, one who is capable, and has the will, time and focus to accomplish tasks more quickly and efficiently, helping them.
Non-profits are notoriously understaffed and overburdened. The reluctance to seek volunteers’ help is holding missions back from great accomplishments. The mind-destroying multi-tasking world in which non-profit staff find themselves can be alleviated by the help of focused volunteers.
We can encourage our organizations to take advantage of volunteer help for many reasons, all of them sound. One simple, but overlooked reason is voluntasking: the passion and ability of volunteers to devote the time it takes to focus on one task, thus accomplishing it faster and with more accuracy and freeing up staff to concentrate on mission centric goals.
Or, we can all continue to cling to our workloads and keep multitasking. But, if we do, we’d better learn to love mediocrity and burnout.