mythbustersVolunteerism is a defining characteristic of the Not-For-Profit sector, in that it sets us apart from the other two societal sectors. It is usually thought of as a virtuous, selfless enterprise on the part of the volunteer….yet my experience, both as an organizational leader and as a volunteer, is that this is not true. And moreover, to the extent that this notion is unchallenged, it can lead to negative outcomes for both the volunteer and the organization(s) she serves.

Let me explain…

Like most of us, before I began my Not-For-Profit sector career, I had been conditioned to believe that volunteers acted from a selfless need to improve their world, to make a difference in a situation – whether local or worldwide – that they found unacceptable. Volunteers acted in concert with some organization originally founded to meet a need, to fill some gap that was not being addressed by either government or the private sector, right? “Do-gooders,” they are called. Surely THEY did not expect to derive some personal benefit, to gain something, to become a different person, to meet a personal agenda, right? Yet, as I recruited, trained, and worked with volunteers – and as I did a lot of volunteering myself – I noticed that the most successful volunteer experiences were those in which the volunteers themselves felt that they were “giving” and “getting.” What was going on?

I endeavored to find out, by creating a graduate school research project, and by interviewing countless volunteers and volunteer directors. My criteria were simple: I concentrated on service as opposed to governing volunteers, and limited my research to health care settings. This latter criterion was meant to eliminate the influence of any potential for obvious benefit that a volunteer might receive as a result of their service, e.g., a theater usher who might receive comp tickets to a performance. My results surprised me, even though they confirmed my own experience as a volunteer.

Here are my key findings:

  • ALL of the volunteer directors I spoke with – from HIV/AIDS-related groups, major medical centers, a direct service foundation, children’s organizations, and more – required their prospective volunteers to clearly identify and state their expectations as a condition of volunteering.
  • The vast majority of my respondents agreed that their longest-term volunteer commitments were the ones in which they – the volunteers – felt like they got more out of their experiences than the organizations did.
  • Failure on the part of the volunteers to successfully identify their “agendas” almost always led to failure of the overall volunteer experience.
  • The identification of agendas and needs on the part of the volunteers was an ongoing process, not one to be performed only at the outset of a term of service.

As my own professional career and my volunteer service progressed, I also witnessed these same principles at work in the governing volunteer experience – among the many Board members I recruited, trained, and served with – albeit in a slightly different way. Board members more often served in part to obtain some organizational skill that might serve to further their professional goals. E.g., a person might join the Finance Committee of the Board in order to learn how to read financial statements.

But how? How do we, as sector professionals and/or as volunteers, arrive at this place where our motives and agendas are on the table for all to see? Moreover, isn’t this approaching heresy – doesn’t the very notion that a volunteer might be seeking a “return on investment” verge on the unthinkable?

And why? Why go through all this? Isn’t it enough that we have a cadre of volunteers at the ready, and that they find opportunities to give of themselves through their favorite organizations?

The “how” is performed via extensive questionnaires and personal interviews between the volunteer directors and their prospective candidates. The most effective queries offer “multiple choice” alternatives: in order to put the prospective, sometimes novice volunteer at ease, they list a number of often-stated volunteer objectives and ask their respondents to “check as many as apply.” They also ask the subject to consider previous volunteer experiences and offer their reflections on them. The interviews that follow thoroughly explore themes arising from the written material.

To the extent that the volunteer director is confident of a “match” between expectations and probable outcomes, it’s a “go.” To the extent that there is a palpable mismatch, or that the volunteer is unwilling to admit any expectations or agendas, it is unlikely that the match will succeed – and often either the candidate and/or the director perceives this and terminates the relationship. (As an example, the director at a major medical center told me that her numerous elderly volunteer candidates would frequently state that one hoped-for outcome was that they would meet a prospective mate. While this was not a “deal-breaker,” it was always clearly stated that this was NOT a likely outcome.)

For prospective Board members, the process may be a bit different. Questionnaires can still be used, and should be followed up by interviews with the ED, other departmental leaders as appropriate (focusing on those whose organizational roles naturally lead to frequent interaction with Board members), and perhaps current Board members (frequently but not exclusively officers and members of the Recruiting Committee).

As to the “why” of all this, I offer these key points:

  • Volunteer turnover is expensive, inefficient, and can lead to a negative “rep” for an organization in its community. Volunteer training is costly, from both monetary and opportunity standpoints.
  • Community stakeholders are ill-served by organizations whose volunteer programs are anything less than top-notch.
  • Social capital is increasingly precious and no organization can afford its waste.
  • The very process of thorough, ongoing identification of motives and agendas on the part of organizational leaders packs a powerful message to their volunteers: you are important to us, and the services you perform are valuable to our community.
  • Monetary donations frequently go hand-in-hand with donations of time: we tend to give where we serve.

The strongest Not-For-Profit organizations of today realize that effective volunteers are precious commodities – we in the USA are working longer hours than most of the rest of the industrialized world, and our “discretionary time” is increasingly limited. And, too, the competition for volunteers is growing right along with the steady increase in the sheer number of Not-For-Profits out there.

Consequently, their ultimate insight is that the overall quality and longevity of the volunteer experience is determined at the beginning of the relationship, when both the volunteer and the organization are completely open and in agreement about their respective needs, motivations, and agendas. And really, when you think about it, isn’t this true of any relationship?

My own take on this is that we – both volunteers and organizational representatives – need to recognize the mythology of the selfless volunteer for what it is: a myth. And, we need to go even further and embrace a concept that cannot help but emerge from this bit of “myth-busting”: that volunteers have an inherently – albeit unconscious – legitimate expectation that they will be transformed to some degree through their service.

Whether it is the service volunteer who emerges with a new level of empathy for other folks in his world, the Board member who gains new skills that might serve her in her profession, or the worker who learns how to properly plant a tree by getting “down and dirty” and planting a thousand or so of them, volunteering HAS its rewards. That is not only unavoidable, but more importantly, it is as it should be.

This article is part of the Mythbusters series.

Here’s a list of each of the articles in this series:

  1. Fundraising Myth: If You Build It They Will Come by Sandra Sims
  2. The Myth of the “Selfless Volunteer” by Tom Welsh
  3. Fundraising Myth: It’s Great to Be Cheap by Marc Pitman
  4. Advertising and Marketing Are Too Expensive by Jim Berigan
  5. The Myth of the Dried Up Well by Sandy Rees
  6. Myths About Foundation Funding by Aaron Atwood

Posted on 10 April 2008

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