Lately, I’ve heard plenty of volunteer managers complain that there simply aren’t enough people out there volunteering or that the extensive training and commitment required by their program “scares people away.” It seems they’ve given up all hope that volunteerism is still a viable way to deliver service.
That’s a real shame, because it’s a major misconception. There’s plenty of research that shows that community engagement is still alive and kicking. A change in the way we do business, however, is what will be needed to tap into the vitality of today's volunteers. Not just lip service -- a few new volunteer job descriptions, revamped volunteer training, or a new recognition program -- but real, authentic change.
The Litmus Test
If you are someone who's having second thoughts about volunteerism (or are just plain discouraged about it all) ask yourself: Am I ready to make the changes necessary to welcome today’s volunteers, or do I want to continue with business as usual? If you stick with the status quo you risk losing even more momentum, and your corps of volunteers is likely to keep shrinking. If you change your paradigm, you may very well build a stronger, more passionate volunteer team that gets the job done in ways you never thought possible. So in this case, the risk of change isn’t really that risky, is it? Wonderful, you say. But how do I make the switch?
Jill Fixler, of The JFFixler Group has some ideas. Her advice focuses primarily on Boomer Volunteers, but given the milieu we all find ourselves in, I think her strategies apply to volunteers of any generation. She recommends we make subtle shifts (I call them pivots) in the most basic of your volunteer management processes.
Seven Ways to Upgrade Your Volunteer Program
Pivot from Management to Engagement -- Instead of a command and control model, of supervisions and tasks, think about how to motivate community members to work toward your cause.
Pivot from Recruitment to Cultivation -- Start thinking about the cultivation of your volunteers, as you would develop potential donors, versus a cattle call for all hands on deck.
Pivot from Placement to Negotiation and Agreement -- Consider how to best use your volunteer’s skills and talents versus trying to force a square peg in a round hole.
Pivot from Supervision to Support -- Allow for a certain amount if flexibility and independence and build that into your volunteer roles; this doesn’t mean you don’t have expectations, it just means there are any number of ways to get the job done.
Pivot from Review to Measurement -- Instead of conducting annual performance reviews, which everyone hates, focus on the impact the volunteer makes -- Fixxler calls this “valuation” (as opposed to evaluation).
Pivot from Recognition to Acknowledgement -- Volunteers aren’t really looking for another plaque, coffee cup, or paperweight; they want to know that their work has made a difference. Let them know that you understand who they are and the specific value they have brought to the organization and their community.
Finally, pivot from Retention to Sustainability -- In the past, we were able to rely on volunteers to commit to consistent, unending years of service; this just isn’t true anymore. Maintaining sustainability over the long term means that we must rethink how we use volunteer talents, how we reconfigure their work, how we collaborate within our team, and how we share leadership at all levels to ensure the most effective use of the people power we have in the here and now.
It's Up to You
There’s a real disconnect between what many organizations are offering prospective volunteers and what tasks and environment today’s volunteers are looking for. The onus is on the organization, not the volunteer, to make the shift necessary to reconnect. If you don’t do it, someone else will.
Want to Learn More?
If you haven’t had a chance to check out the webinars offered by VolunteerMatch.com, they really are good. You can register for them here. The Boomer Volunteer Engagement series is particularly helpful and an eye opener for anyone who wants to tap into what today's volunteers have to offer.