VolunteerMatch’s new book, Volunteer Engagement 2.0: Ideas and Insights Changing the World, features chapters from 35 experts in the field of volunteer engagement. In this series of blog posts, get to know these #35experts and their areas of expertise.
Today’s expert: Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.
Why is your chapter topic important?
I was very happy to be given the chapter that links the past with the future, because I believe we can learn a lot from history. It’s rare to find the word volunteer in historical accounts, even though the formation of new legislation, institutions, and cultural attitudes are mainly the outcome of the collective, unpaid actions of individuals willing to roll up their sleeves and put themselves into action – or, by any other name, volunteers.
Whether in government, nonprofits, or businesses, volunteers are the mavericks, protestors, and activists who recognize the need for action before it’s someone’s job or there’s profit to be made. Just think about the recent evolution of hospice services, disability rights, open source Internet software sharing, the outcry against drunk drivers, or the protests over police misuse of power. As I ask at the start of my chapter: Who dumped the tea into Boston Harbor? No one is ever paid to start a revolution.
Of course, while some people love the challenge of starting something brand new, other volunteers make it their mission to support organizations proven to matter. We understand that money donors write checks to causes they want to see succeed. In a more personally committed way, volunteers are time donors putting themselves where their beliefs are. Let’s start calling volunteers skill-anthropists, expressing an emphasis on their talents, not just their time.
History teaches that where there is change, there will be volunteers. Whether reactive to societal trends or proactive in urging solutions to problems, we can safely predict that volunteers will find whole new causes in the years to come.
What advice would you give volunteer managers to take with them to the future?
Most organizations do not have a vision for volunteer involvement and so do not approach it strategically. Without respect for the proven power of volunteers, they tend to focus on finding and deploying ”unpaid helpers” efficiently. The great thing is that leaders of volunteer engagement can take initiative. What do we want our purpose to be? Are we about volunteers or solutions? We create most of the roles volunteers fill. Are volunteers always assisting employees, or do we open opportunities for them to lead, be creative, experiment, and dream – since that potential is always there?
This sort of approach to our work requires a certain tolerance of risk. Are we willing to rock the boat? Are we afraid of controversy, even conflict? Do fears about safety and liability limit our innovation? I think we have to see our role as facilitating volunteer accomplishment. Consider these questions:
- How do we react to new ideas posed by volunteers? Do we advocate for them to agency decision makers?
- How often do we intentionally recruit new volunteers for their different backgrounds, skills, or opinions?
- Do we recruit to fill vacancies on a roster or do we invite people with creativity and drive to join the fight for our cause?
How often do we review volunteer position descriptions and ask: Is this still the most important and effective thing volunteers could be doing? And what do we do when the answer is no?
Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, Inc., an international training, consulting, and publishing firm that specializes in volunteerism. Since founding Energize in 1977, Susan has assisted clients throughout the world to create or strengthen their volunteer corps. The Energize website is widely recognized as a premier resource in the field. Susan is the author of 14 books, including From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Successful Volunteer Involvement, By the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers, and The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. She has written for dozens of publications and writes the national column, On Volunteers, for The NonProfit Times. Since 2000, she has been publishing editor of e-Volunteerism: The Electronic Journal of the Volunteer Community.
To read Susan’s full chapter, A History of Change in Volunteer Engagement, order your copy of Volunteer Engagement 2.0: Ideas and Insights Changing the World today.