In anticipation of my workshop at VolunteerMaine’s annual, statewide Blaine House Conference on Service and Volunteerism in Orono next week, I’m guest blogging about how to prepare for and start partnerships that support volunteer programs.
Robbie Samuels has posted my guest blog Making the Most of Volunteers, which has links on ways of thinking about motivation and for podcasts on the “hiring” process .
Simply said, because I’m waiting for all the details needed for a successful volunteer experience, whether it’s signing up to volunteer and the project itself matching expectations/pr or the details being complete and correct. Since PMD partners with many charities, most of which don’t have staff dedicated to running an ongoing volunteer program, it takes time for us to work out these details together, sometimes longer than expected.
My related TSNE article on nonprofits must prepare to recruit volunteers has gone live today. It’s relevant whether a charity needs a volunteer to help for only two hours one time or needs many volunteers to help for several hours a week.
Although People Making a Difference (PMD) is often thought of as being the group for individuals and businesses to go to for fun, well-organized, hands-on volunteer opportunities helping community-based charities and their clients in need, PMD also provides needed training and pro bono consulting services (and serves as the fiscal sponsor and leads the Directors of Volunteer Administration (DOVA) ) so that more charities can engage more volunteers effectively.
I’ve been a regular presenter at the annual conferences of VolunteerMaine and the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, plus the Technical Development Corporation (TDC) and the Nonprofit Net (where they recorded my 90+minute seminar) in Greater Boston. (Since the United Way abandoned volunteer management training when it reorganized two executive directors ago, PMD has been trying to fill the void.)
Earlier this month, I offered data, insights, and advice on enabling volunteers to make a difference to a packed workshop organized by Jackie Cefola and her team at Third Sector New England, as part of its free, Bottom Line training series. Originally planned for just 35 participants, it filled beyond capacity within two days of being advertised, and 50+ people actually participated. I suspect that there is such a huge interest in volunteers since donations of time and treasure distinguish the nonprofit sector, everyone is trying to do more with less during the recession, and a typical American’s volunteer involvement has become just 1-2 times a year. Fyi: I began with trends in volunteer (mis)management and had participants base their thinking on key volunteer motivators balanced with their charities’ prioritized needs, followed by targeted marketing approaches/tools. (Email me if you’d like a copy of the handouts.)
Attendee feedback from this workshop was quite positive, and I was delighted to learn that many people appreciated my humorous approach. While I don’t typically think of myself as a funny person, I guess I do use humor when sharing stories of nonprofits and volunteers, particularly cautionary tales, beginning with my own story as a 10-year-old, novice violinist “serenading” captive/immobile residents at my great grandmother’s convalescent hospital.
In my subsequent high school years as Key Club Governor and Lt. Governor of the California-Nevada-Hawaii District, I mostly shared lists of facts and dry logic during trainings and presentations I gave, so I’m glad that my presentation style has evolved to integrate relevant storytelling and humor. People really do remember stories, not isolated information, and humor helps us deal with difficult subjects.
I’ve provided some Expert Advice for Massnonprofit.org at http://www.massnonprofit.org/expert.php?artid=1571&catid=64
Disclaimer: This is general advice. Results will vary for specific programs and people. For assistance with your volunteer program and its particular challenges, please contact me directly for consultations.
Jenny Hibbard blogged about “Volunteer Hoards: More Work Than Help” and Brad Feld blogged about “Saying No in Less than 60 Seconds” this week, so in this spirit of of maximizing the time/effort that one spends on what’s important, I think more volunteer managers need to educate the public as to what their charities need AND say “No” quickly and often, so they can spend time on potential and current volunteers who could/do make a difference to their charities, rather than distracting offers to do unrequested, less needed things, unless, of course, all current volunteer needs are addressed.
First, more charities need to think and plan their volunteer programs critically:
- Assess and articulate their volunteer needs using comprehensive position descriptions
- Determine and allocate charity resources to support a volunteer program that engages volunteers who will address these needs
- Target groups/places with the most likely candidates (rather than a random, shotgun-like approach), using real marketing techniques
- Encourage people to self-select, to apply for specific roles, based on sharing the criteria of each, specific volunteer need
- Maximize staff time spent on people most likely to become (or who already are) great volunteers and be (or keep them) satisfied in these roles
Beyond the aforementioned volunteer program “must haves,” this means learning how to quickly intake and assess nonstandard offers*, and to thank but reject: “Thanks for your kind offer, but your
*This probably means eliminating a general volunteer application form as a first contact a potential volunteer has with a charity, since these forms tend to create more work, like requesting more information, unless a charity has sufficient staffing to review and respond to the volume of general applicants quickly. Lately, I’ve been recommending tailoring forms for specific positions AND only offering them to applicants who have attended an open house or have already completed an unskilled volunteer task for the charity, and thus already learned the basics about a charity and its needs.
Conversely, What Will Get People to Volunteer?Â See final paragraph.
One of my pet peeves is when underlying survey biases influence the results. I recently saw another reference to a common reason why people tell surveyors they don’t volunteer, that they say don’t know where to go, in a NYT article featuring Michael Bloomberg encouraging more New Yorkers to volunteer last week.
Is is that they don’t know where to go, or that they haven’t yet made an effort to discover what volunteer placement(s) would make them happiest? (See third and sixth paragraphs of my prior post “What’s Missing from Calls to Volunteer”). Could this be laziness? Should all volunteering be effortless in this way? Certainly PMD’s one-time, 3-7 hour, unskilled volunteer gigs should be fairly effortless, but potential volunteers for multi-year mentoring should demonstrate ongoing commitment and interest, learn about expectations, and receive training and participate in ongoing support, which requires real effort and expert guidance from volunteer administrators.
In surveys that identify barriers to volunteerism and philanthropy, many people respond they are too busy and/or that no one asked them to volunteer, but I think these reflect simple survey questions with more complex answers, a little truth missing unexpressed feelings and experiences.
I believe Malcolm Gladwell once said (in a podcast I downloaded from ITConversations.org) that people generally tend to select the easiest/quickest survey answers and they they have trouble when they have to choose between more than two choices, so my theory is that more complicated answers take too much effort, are not among available options, and could delve into sensitive areas, such as being too busy to volunteer because one has to work several jobs to make ends meet, and/or take care of young/ailing family members, understandably leaving no time/energy. Perhaps a better question would ask people to rank the priorities in their lives, then see where volunteerism/civic engagement falls to understand what competes for attention and where possible blending can occur, such as volunteering as part of a work event? Marketers could target people who could have more time available, too.
Given how many charities advertise for volunteers and donations, I think not feeling asked is a matter of messages that I am needed in some way not being targeted to me/my cohort. (Charities, no more shotgun advertising that you generally need help.) Beyond the momentum generated by all the broad calls to serve this year, charities must develop volunteer programs with cultures and specific roles that enable volunteers to feel needed and valued.
We already know what motivates people, don’t need surveys to tell us that people prefer to feel needed and valued, and know busy people want their time to be respected, not wasted, so let’s just build this type of culture in our local charities and corresponding volunteer programs!
2009 has already had unprecedented numbers of leaders encourage more Americans to serve: President Obama on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, the massive Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, and Michael Bloomberg encouraging more New Yorkers to volunteer last week. Last year, Deval Patrick created the Commonwealth Corps in an effort to increase volunteerism and the capacity to volunteer among Massachusetts residents and charities.
However, not much has changed for the ordinary person who still has to work, pay rent, and put food on the table, who cannot dedicate more than a few hours a week to volunteer, or for local charities struggling to serve more needs with fewer resources in this economy slump. Beyond leaders telling the public to do more for the common good, little has (or has so far) changed to remove barriers to involvement since few resources and directives have been created to improve the volunteer programs and capacities of local charities.
For significant growth in the for-profit sector, a supply chain (which translates to the nonprofit sector as volunteer program development, recruitment, screening, placement, and feedback loops) is developed to handle expansion, but it seems like our leaders are overpromoting one aspect, general volunteer recruitment, instead of the whole process for volunteer engagement. I’m concerned that many people may try to volunteer but then not feel valued or utilized effectively if local charities can’t respond and place them immediately. For example, at the very beginning when someone is newly inspired to volunteer, s/he is typically directed to a web search engine like VolunteerMatch that assumes s/he knows who s/he wants to help, has skills to do it, and what will be personally fulfilling, then generates an overwhelming number of purported matches. These sites have been around for decades, and yet they still lack eHarmony-like interfaces to help people identify their passions, temperaments, and resources and display appropriate matches based on more than physical proximity and a cause/needs. If these sites aren’t improved, then we have/will plateau since they are geared for people who think they already know what they want to do.
Volunteer program development (such as ongoing needs assessment and the creation of fulfilling positions) is static/outdated at most local charities. During the past two decades, the number of volunteer programs with professional managers/coordinators/administrators on staff has significantly contracted; some volunteer programs have been totally eliminated, while others have staff who also has significant fund raising and programmatic responsibilities (like PMD board director Jenny Hartwell at HEARTH). Volunteer programs are typically absent from nonprofits’ strategic/business plans, often with unwritten assumptions that if funds cannot be raised to accomplish documented goals and objectives, then uncompensated volunteers will somehow do so to meet these needs without additional charity staffing to recruit, screen, and manage them.
Furthermore, without fewer staff to welcome and screen potential volunteers who have been inspired to serve RIGHT NOW, long response times can be a huge turn off. There’s nothing like hearing a barrage of calls to volunteer since charities need more help, responding by calling/emailing my interest, and then hearing nothing back or delayed responses while those general messages continue. This phenomenon can really make someone feel unappreciated when, conversely s/he needs a really positive, first experience so s/he doesn’t give up.
Beyond finding out what’s needed locally (since I’m unconvinced that knowledge was provided by the Council on Foundations, Independent Sector, the National Council of Nonprofits, and other national organizations among the 300 who met at the White House on 5/20), leaders must fund real volunteer capacity increases at local charities and must help the public understand that volunteering is like searching (and finding) a perfect job. This process depends on
- Determining what one is passionate about and the types of activities one is suited for (and can make a difference at)
- Learning what is needed in one’s community, and
- Understanding that this takes time and special effort. And, like many of our professional paths, it could mean a series of several volunteer commitments to determine and to find a good fit.
I fear that another volunteer web site snafu like the former pic2009.org one (since removed) on MLK Day (didn’t collect phone#s or allow charities to email informative attachments or close sign ups when capacities were reached) will jeopardize a White House call to serve this summer.
Deborah Finn, who moderates the Mission-Based Massachusetts yahoogroup, pointed us to a blog entry about Information Age volunteerism by Ben Rigby, a cofounder of the Extraordinaries. It combined with the comments are interesting. Like the commenters, I think that a combination of new and old ways of volunteerism is needed.
I also posted this comment about real reasons why people don’t volunteer:
I founded and run People Making a Difference (https://www.pmd.org) in Boston to remove the common barriers to direct service volunteerism while providing effective recruiting and volunteer group management services that bring real value and non-redundant assistance to the mostly small charities we serve.
Though I am quite familiar with the traditional, survey responses as to why people say they do not volunteer, I no longer believe these for the most part. It seems like respondents are giving the same excuses because the survey instrument offers these standard, superficial choices about not having time, being unasked, etc. when the underlying reason is that most who do not volunteer have yet to become motivated. As Ben points out, if people have time to watch tv (I’ll add: and they are not responsible for caring for family members), then most can and will make time to help with something for which they are passionate (cause or tasks) and for which the experience is positive. And the easier the entry point, the easier it is to get started.
Motivation is a shared responsibility between nonprofits and potential volunteers. As others have already pointed out, nonprofits need to define and to articulate accurately what help is needed, provide the internal support to make it possible, structure/market the opportunities attractively like the Extraordinaries is attempting, and select people best suited to help. (Few for-profits expect their employees to be productive as quickly and stay on staff with as little as the nonprofit sector allocates for volunteers, whether in strategic planning, budgets, supervision, work space, etc.) Likewise, potential volunteers need to figure out, sometimes by trial and error, what inspires them and how they can contribute meaningfully. When they find a rewarding volunteer position, most people will stick with it, finding a way to contribute unless their personal circumstances change (commonly in Boston, they move too far away).
I admit that I am concerned about the statistical “problem” with low volunteer retention, but I wonder if this is partly a side effect of the trial and error when people seek a “volunteer placement of a lifetime.” Just as most people date before they marry, moving on to volunteering somewhere else is not necessarily a sign that the original volunteer position was bad, just that the fit perhaps wasn’t great for that person. And while the nonprofit and person could do more to try to “save the marriage,” the easiest path is usually to split up and try again. (Of course, if the experience is really horrible, some people give up and don’t try again.) People often become unmotivated because they don’t understand how they make a difference, so PMD project managers articulate this a lot before, during, and after people volunteer, which seems to work, but is much easier to implement during 3-7 hour, one-time volunteer experience as compared to once every week.
One last thing: We should make entry to volunteerism easy, but also maintain high standards. At PMD, while we do let anyone sign up 10-31 days before a PMD service project, we promote “informed and responsible volunteerism” to raise the proverbial bar on one-time volunteers since we are investing limited resources into organizing high quality, free service opportunities for both participants and recipient charities. I often talk/blog about doing more good than harm, like the direct consequences of not showing up as committed, and so we have 90-100% participation. No matter what volunteers are expected to do, all nonprofits should set high standards out of respect to the people, places, and others we aim to assist, and explain our rationale. Implementation will vary from requiring 40 hours of technical training with certification to basic reference checking about people’s ability to do what they say they can do to help, then supervision with checks and balances to review volunteer performance along the way.
This morning I trudged a mile in the snow (over many unshoveled sidewalks) to participate in the Alexander Phan Bone Marrow Drive and completed a long paper application form, only to be soundly rejected due to diagnosed sleep apnea without corrective surgery. It was a frustrating experience, but if the process were revamped, there would have been several opportunities to build good will even if I could not volunteer/join the registry.
While I totally believe that bone marrow donation and a registry program are quite valuable, the recruitment and screening process leaves much to be desired. I’m frustrated because they wasted my time, so am going to go out on a limb and make suggestions based on this one experience.
I heard about this drive via email and facebook, which did a good job of personalizing it to help a particular boy (when, in fact, the greater pool of patients in need will be served), but neither source directed potential volunteers to online links to help self-determine whether they would be (dis)qualified. There are many medical guidelines to ensure the health and well-being of donors and recipients, so it would be nice to share the major requirements like Beautiful Lengths does for potential donors of hair for wigs for cancer patients. If this were the case, then I could have self-selected myself out of the process early on and saved everyone the time and effort. Instead, there was pressure to show up no matter what the weather/road conditions rather than to click to check and see if you could be of help.
Though the National Bone Marrow Registry cannot control social media players, they still had several more, preemptive opportunities to conserve effort and to build good will in the process. Initial signage at the drive should name all of the required medical criteria–sleep apnea/breathing disorders were absent-not just the major ones like criteria already associated with blood donation–particularly when this drive’s organizer has sleep apnea and knows he cannot be a marrow donor. (I’m an occasional blood donor, so I knew that I was acceptable in this regard.) The lower third of signs was dedicated to gross obesity charts, apropos for our overweight nation, so I could check and see that I fell within the acceptable range.
After reading the signs, I was thanked for showing up, given 10-pages of paperwork to read and complete, and asked to consider making a $25-$52 donation to cover the cost of my tissue typing. Instead, I suggest that the National Bone Marrow Donor Program reorganize WHEN one talks with the trained staff and volunteer screeners and RECEIVES and COMPLETES written information:
- Before filling out any forms, direct me to read the registration and consent for HLA typing so any disparity between what the registry requires and what the potential volunteer is willing to do is resolved or participation is preempted right away. These four pages were sandwiched inside the six-page application form, which also duplicated two of the key pages at the very end.
- A real person, not a form, should explain the purpose of the specific medical guideline questions before the form is completed. No one can argue with expert criteria for the well-being of donors and recipients, and understanding makes potential rejection easier to accept. Then a potential bone marrow donor should describe/check off conditions and be counseled/rejected for any conditions that could be or are unacceptable. At this point, the potential volunteer has invested very little effort, so can walk away “no harm, no foul” and still feel good about trying. (It was deflating to have my detailed application form given back to me to destroy due to all of my personal information in it.–It felt like there was absolutely no point in my showing up and completing the detailed form.)
- If the potential bone marrow donor volunteer seems like a good candidate, s/he should then be required to fill out detailed personal, employer, contact persons’, and other information before moving on to a cheek swab and request for a donation to cover part or all of the cost of his/her tissue typing.