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Volunteers Are the Air We Breathe

Written by Caitlin Struhs | on April 11, 2016 at 8:00 AM


Happy National Volunteer Week! What are you and your organization doing this week to celebrate? We kicked off the festivities a little early this year – for April's Learning Series webinar, we joined forces with Mariner Management’s Peter Houstle, who discussed the changing tides (pun intended) of volunteerism and how the old volunteer model just won’t cut it anymore.

Volunteers really are like the air organizations breathe. How can we revamp the old volunteer model for new programs that help our volunteers shine? Peter outlined three primary concerns every organization should consider before tackling a new volunteer initiative.

  1. Generational differences. It may be a trendy topic, but generations operate differently. We polled our webinar attendees, and most sat firmly in the Generation X category, with a healthy mix of Baby Boomers and Millennials also in attendance. This variety bodes well for volunteering, if you plan opportunities around varying strengths.
  2. The traditional committee model is broken. A lot of organizations relied on the same old agendas and commitment ladder for its volunteer members – it could be years before a member made it to a committee to try and affect real change. Because of this long-term commitment, volunteer burnout was all too familiar.
  3. Look for meaning, not handcuffs. Most volunteers want to offer their time and talents to drive a certain mission or cause, not necessarily do your organization any favors. Make sure you haven’t locked down your volunteers for years of mundane servitude – craft opportunities that speak to a variety of mission-driven goals.

Time to Adapt to the Volunteer Continuum

Volunteer management is a growing field for organizations, and right now it favors the go-getters. But as Peter discussed, not everyone falls into that neat, preferred category of enthusiastic, self-sufficient volunteer.

Both motivated volunteers and members who may need to be “volun-told” are useful for your organization. Check out Peter’s chart below representing a volunteer continuum, where volunteer members can fall into any and all categories of volunteering.


3 Big Challenges When Developing Your Volunteer Program

To develop a more comprehensive, member-focused volunteer program, Peter stressed three challenges any organization should be prepared to face. Ask yourself these questions, and you'll be well on your way to launching a successful volunteer program.

1. Time and Flexibility: How can your volunteers help?

Like Peter mentioned earlier – don’t handcuff your volunteers and make them feel like they’re completing a jail term rather than participating in a helpful opportunity. Right now, there is a critical lack of ad hoc and micro volunteering opportunities. Just like a purchase decision, incoming generations want to test it out before they buy it – what volunteer tasks does your organization offer that only requires five minutes, 30 minutes or a one-day commitment? Volunteer involvement is also cyclical – that big chunk of Generation Xers ready to get involved are working around families, careers and other life milestones.

BONUS: What is ad hoc and micro volunteering?

People often mix and match these terms. Ad hoc is more about project-oriented volunteer activities – it can be a large list, varying from an upcoming conference to compiling a report. Micro volunteering means a very small job that may only take a few minutes to complete. A micro task can be part of an ad hoc project.

2. Motivation: Why do volunteers join in the first place?

Have you considered surveying your members and why they volunteer, and what types of opportunities they would volunteer for with your organization? This is a great way to test assumptions – evidence-based decision making will be more consistent and reliable in the long run. You should understand why volunteers join before you create the what. Motivation is a multi-dimensional concept, too. Aside from generally being pro-social, volunteers often have a variety of reasons in volunteering for a specific cause.

3. Work Style: How will people volunteer for you?

Once you have those motivating factors down, think about how volunteers will work for you. According to research done by ASAE, about 56 percent of volunteers opt to work with like-minded people, and four in five volunteers are motivated by passion for the cause. Millennials connect with causes first, not organizations. So nurture that desire for peer interaction and team-based activities. Focus on opportunities that will be skills-based, and fuse those skills with the desire for life-long learning.

Take Advantage of These Volunteer Trends

Here are Peter’s takeaways for enacting new volunteer trends and building a volunteer program that focuses on members’ skills and organizations’ outcomes. It really can be a win-win.

  • Be flexible – we are fundamentally social animals, so bring people together in a variety of ways.
  • Embrace micro volunteering – even the smallest tasks can be helpful. Don’t discount them.
  • Harness technology – community platforms, social networks, and more can support your program.
  • Support mentoring programs – let your best volunteers do some of the heavy lifting.
  • Be motivational – understand what drives your volunteers. Most want a combo of professional development and an opportunity to help serve others.
  • Be outcome-focused – have an open mind about new formats and structures.
  • Be accessible – make sure your volunteers can find you and the opportunities, easily.
  • Think differently about recruiting – it’s like HR management, except for the paycheck.

Peter’s great advice boils down to a simple concept: let’s allow our volunteers to be the best they can be. Give them the right tools, and get out of their way…well, except for this week – make sure you recognize and reward your outstanding volunteers all week long!

 Use your community to increase volunteerism and member engagement.

Topics: Volunteer Management, Online Community

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