What Must Volunteerism Lose to Win? Ideas from the National Conference on Volunteering and Service

Guest Post by Tobi Johnson, MA, CVA.

Volunteer Engagement 2.0 Table Discussion

What Must Volunteerism Lose to Win?There are times when holding on to tradition pays off. Take the Roman Empire for example. Building on tradition, the Romans managed to amass huge swaths of geography and achieve amazing feats of architecture, art and engineering. But, nothing lasts forever, does it? Sometimes, the inability to innovate can lead to an organization’s (or civilization’s) demise.

In my chapter in Volunteer Engagement 2.0, I ask “What must volunteerism lose to win?” I note new insights from brain science, demographic and educational changes, technological advances, and workplace shifts that are having a deep impact on how we volunteer and serve. I make the case that some of our “legacy mindsets” may need to be revisited and perhaps abandoned. But, changing long-held beliefs isn’t easy.

In the spirit of innovation, I facilitated three table discussions about my chapter – Big Shifts That Will Change Volunteerism for the Better – during the Volunteer Engagement 2.0 session at Points of Light National Conference for Volunteering and Service.

Over lively conversation, we had the opportunity to delve deeper into mindsets that may be obstacles to the growth of our organizations and the field of volunteerism. To get the conversation going, I asked participants who visited my table to ponder two questions:

  • What current “legacy mindsets” do you see at play in your organizations and the field?
  • What are solution-based ways we can address these mindsets, both in ourselves and our organizations?

Visitors at my table generated a fantastic list and shared creative ideas about what to do about them. I thought I’d share them with you. Thank you to everyone who shared their wisdom!

Legacy Mindsets Identified by Participants

Below are several legacy mindsets, or historic beliefs, the groups at my table felt we are ready to retire. Do you agree?

  • Corporate management doesn’t care about employee volunteers
  • There are not enough community volunteer opportunities available for businesses to take advantage of
  • It isn’t worth it to invest time into volunteers. It’s great to have the time for it, but we don’t have it
  • Viewing a supporter as “just a volunteer” with limited skills, versus the whole person with a lifetime of experiences to share
  • Seeing partnership as an exchange as opposed to a true win-win collaboration
  • For 20-30 years we have been task-centric, but experienced volunteers know more than anyone else. Some believe that volunteerism is only valuable if it’s task-based
  • The status quo, “We’ve always done it this way” mentality; “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”; fear of change
  • Similarly, “We tried it a new way and it didn’t work”; failure is inevitable
  • The sentiment that risk is hard, and failing is always bad (versus an opportunity for learning and growth)
  • Favoring the “bake sale” model versus the strategic business model
  • Not seeing the whole picture with volunteers as part of a community ecosystem, and instead viewing them as individuals “widgets” we plug into tasks
  • Believing that everyone that belongs to a specific generation will only behave one way
  • Blind acceptance of authority; the boss says we don’t have the resources, so we don’t look for creative solutions for resources
  • Lack of perseverance; using the resistance authority figures as an excuse to block our progress
  • Subscribing to an “if we build it they will come” mentality, versus focusing in cultivation of involvement and commitment
  • Our decision making is self-contained within the circle of management; we don’t need to include others in it
  • When it comes to volunteers “No” shouldn’t really mean “No”
  • The belief that volunteers aren’t here to do their best work and that we can’t expect greatness; lack of trust
  • Along similar lines, you can’t hold volunteers accountable
  • Because they are “only volunteers,” we really can worry about whether their skills match with the task or role, and we certainly can’t re-direct them into something else that is a better fit

Solution-based Thinking Offered by Participants

Participants also shared solutions to combatting unproductive legacy mindsets in their organizations and in themselves. Which might you use at your organization?

  • Be more creative about volunteer roles; find the right roles for the right volunteers
  • Seek to develop long-term partnerships that are vested in the community and dedicated to volunteer involvement; seek to foster a community-wide incubator or ecosystem of organizations in which volunteers can flourish
  • Cultivate across levels of engagement versus simply one-off recruitment
  • Give volunteers more freedom through a partnership model of management with greater power sharing
  • Give volunteers a seat at the table for conversations that affect them
  • Follow best in class organizations and be strategic about volunteer involvement (their role, how to train, using an intentional, system-based approach)
  • Launch initiatives like the YMCA’s Togetherhood project that aim to put volunteers in the front seat of community change
  • Consider that there’s equal potential in short-term and long-term volunteers – there’s a time and place for all kinds of involvement; it’s about intentional impact versus time
  • Remember that volunteering is often an important event in the continuum of a person’s life; they will remember it positively or negatively, so act accordingly
  • To set limits, create new rules for volunteers; ask veterans’ help be part of determining what they will be required of everyone
  • Engage volunteers in the process of making change though focus groups to gather their insights and opinions
  • Say “No” to volunteers when needed; set boundaries
  • Use small pilot projects to phase in new programs versus going “all in”; ask “is this the right project?”
  • Develop an internal volunteer-led training corps that shares realistic limitations and expectations of volunteers with staff
  • To foster greater accountability, become part of a process; don’t give a false sense of completion if a project isn’t done
  • Acknowledge that some of the traditional ways still have value
  • Focus on the importance of screening for both skills and what volunteers want to learn; offer a spectrum of opportunities
  • Get together locally as volunteer managers and share opportunities; re-direct volunteers to an opportunity that’s a better fit; give them a list of what each organization is looking for
  • Spotlight volunteer skills on your website versus simply as recognition to see who wants to work with them, to share expectations, and to ask prospective volunteers to think about mutual commitment; be clear about what we commit to you, and you commit to us
  • Need to be willing to do something different, not just limit yourself
  • Re-prioritize, there’s no one best way to do something; be willing to be scared from time to time
  • Honor and reward resourcefulness and creativity in volunteers
  • Recognize that volunteer managers have more power than they realize; your boss has no idea what you really do, so take some initiative and ask for forgiveness later (if you think you can in your environment)
  • To get your boss’s buy-in, design a comprehensive re-start, backed by research and data; include comments from volunteers and staff in your data; offer more than one option, and review the pros and cons of each; explain why you favor what you are recommending and let your boss choose the final option

Interested in more on volunteer engagement? Check out this upcoming webinar:

[Webinar] Low-Cost Ways to Thank & Recognize Volunteers (to Celebrate the Season)

Monday, November 23, 12:00-1:00pm EST/9:00-10:00am PST

Volunteer recognition is so important, but many struggle with how to creatively thank their volunteers without a big budget. Join us to learn a variety of creative ways to thank and inspire volunteers beyond the traditional plaque, certificate, or pin.

For more details, go here.


About the author: Tobi Johnson is the Chief Engagement Officer (CEO) of VolunteerPro, an online learning community for leaders of volunteers. See the training calendar for an up-to-date schedule of upcoming webinars and courses. Tobi is also the author of Tobi’s Volunteer Management Blog.

Photo Credit: Roman Emperor Augustus & Livia, Walters Art Museum, Tobi Johnson