Volunteering: Put Why First

Posted: May 30, 2014

Why not what

I often do presentations for community groups on networking and other topics that fit my expertise. Generally I’m good at estimating a presentation’s timing and flow. Rarely am I really surprised. But it happens – and it did, just recently.

It started with the topic of volunteering.

From my work with nonprofits, I know that volunteers are needed strategically, they give the positive impression of community support; and some may become potential board members. The reality is that not all volunteers work well or work out, and when that happens, it can be unpleasant for everyone involved.

That’s where my recent experience comes in. It offers a window on why volunteers and volunteer programs sometimes fall short – and how encouraging reciprocal relationships can strengthen nonprofits.

Surprise! Why Matters

In presenting before a group of professionals, I shared a survey on volunteering. I expected a few minutes of discussion. Instead it lasted half the presentation time.

The driving force was the main question: Why do you volunteer?

Essentially I heard two recurring views: that many had never considered – or been asked – why they volunteer, and that volunteering should only benefit others. Volunteers who gain personally were suspect – and we’re not talking about running off with the bake sale profits. Volunteering as a way of networking was shunned.

I’m a firm believer in going with the flow because I usually learn something. And as I listened to this passionate exchange, I was struck by the significance for nonprofits. Granted, this is a small sample, but based on the responses, I see two important needs:

-to recruit volunteers differently

-to promote volunteering as a two-way street

The Why of Why

What happens when people are only asked if they’d like to volunteer?

That’s basically a yes-or-no question. So a certain number will say, yes, I can help. But as an organization, you don’t know why they’re willing to volunteer, nor have you prompted them to think through their motivations. Human nature being what it is, there is a why to everyone’s service. Perhaps it’s about recognition or time to fill or strong commitment to an organization’s cause.

There can be many reasons, but here’s the point: asking why can help volunteers clarify their intentions and express what they’d like to do. That knowledge may help your organization use them to the fullest. Or, their goals and your volunteer needs may not match, in which case a graceful exit can be arranged.

Service Not Serfdom

On to the second part of this equation: it’s not zero-sum service for volunteers!

When did volunteering become equated with drudgery? Over the years I’ve served on nonprofit boards to strengthen my networking connections – and felt no shame in admitting it. I’ve always fulfilled my duties completely, but I’ve also used each opportunity to expand my contacts.

Yes, there is such a thing as conflict of interest. Volunteering only to get a cousin’s catering business in on the annual gala may cross the line. But common sense sets limits here. Nonprofits need to communicate that it’s okay to give and receive from service. Again, let’s get back to human nature: we’re more likely to stay with something we benefit from. And statistics show volunteers tend to donate more. So who wins? You got it: individual and organization alike.

I’ll be continuing this conversation on volunteers in my June dashboard. If you haven’t signed up, please do and join me next month.

Looking for help with your organization’s volunteer program? Let’s talk.