Competitive Spirit: Tips on Adding Challenges and Other Competitive Elements to Your Volunteer Program

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What could motivate your volunteers to reach new goals in your program? The answer varies from program to program, but for many nonprofits it’s clear that friendly competition has a role.  In fact, the Latin for compete, competere, has its roots in “strive together,” which sounds a lot like community service and volunteering.

The GWU Challenge

In the D.C. area, we’ve been working closely with the administration and student body at The George Washington University to help them achieve their 2010 goals. Students at GWU are working furiously to serve 100,000 hours of volunteer time by graduation day. The pay-off: a Commencement Day appearance from First Lady Michelle Obama, who agreed to the friendly competition to help motivate students to get more involved in community issues. Of course, the community as a whole with the real winner.

At winter break, GWU students have already logged 46,000 hours, close enough to make a final spring sprint to the finish line possible.

Competition As Motivation

While it’s nice to imagine a reality where everyone is motivated by altruism and good intention all the time, the reality of volunteering is far more complex.

Most volunteers experience peaks and valleys in their volunteering commitments, and a big part of the volunteer manager’s job is to make sure the peaks are tall and wide and the valleys short and narrow.

A competitive challenge to do the most good is already a big factor in charitable athletic races and fundraising, so why not see where it can be added to your program to help sustain interest and passion?

If you’re thinking about adding a competitive element to your volunteer program, here are some things to watch for:

Make the Carrot Sweet – Rewards are at the heart of competition, be it bragging rights, giveaways, or public recognition. What can your organization offer to make a volunteer challenge something volunteers will want to take part in? Ask around if you need ideas: this may be an area where your board of directors will be helpful, too.

Build in Tracking – If you’re not already asking volunteers to report on either their hours or their projects, think carefully about what constitutes “victory” in the challenge. Can you track it? Is it something that can be objectively reported on? If not, you could run into problems with conflicts or confusion as the challenge goes on.

Align with Your Mission – Before your competition to accomplish the most volunteering becomes an end in and of itself, review the parts of your plan to make sure the work it will inspire really does align with what your organization is trying to do. You know that famous fence that keeps getting painted over and over in rhetoric about misguided volunteerism? Will your competition make the fence more, or less, likely to get painted? If more, how can you encourage (or restrict) volunteers to stay within the boundaries of mission-focused work?

Allow for Opt-Outs – Competition isn’t for everyone; lots of folks don’t give a whit for being compared to others — and some could be completely turned off on the idea. Be sure to create a program that gives everyone a choice in whether and how to participate (and doesn’t stigmatize those who choose not to).

Recognition Where It’s Due – For many people, public recognition of their commitment to service is a greater reward than any other prize. Check with your communications team to see if it’s possible to include a write up or a photo of your winning volunteer(s) in your newsletter, Web site, Facebook page, Twitter feed, or annual report.

Does your organization use volunteer challenges or other competitive programs to inspire volunteers? Let us know what works and what doesn’t.

Photo: Morguefile

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