Volunteering may be the new black – ever since President Obama started the “Renew America Together” volunteering promotion program in 2009. But somehow the issue has faded away. I just learned that volunteer turnover is many, many times higher than regular paid worker turnover. You’d think that people who do something for free, just because they believe in it, would be more motivated to stick around than if they are paid to do it. But in reality the burnout is much more severe and the reason for that is conceptual. In brief, many organizations misunderstand the role of their volunteers and treat them the wrong way.
Since I’ve been involved in many projects made possible only through the help of people who have generously donated their time and skill, in many capacities and different sides, here’s what I think most organizations misunderstand – and lose volunteers’ good will.
Compare motherhood and babysitting. Both motherhood and babysitting include boring, dirty tasks, perhaps requiring only low-level skill. However, the big difference is that motherhood also includes the spiritual rewards, the claim to ownership of the whole baby project. Mothers would gladly do the boring stuff because they feel the related pride and connection to their child. You can’t attract volunteers if you only offer them a babysitting kind of relationship. So, don’t thank them with “We couldn’t have planted these trees without you” – this phrase automatically separates them from the ownership of the project. Say instead: “Look how many trees we all planted!”.
Inspiration and meaning
If you are an organization depending on volunteer work, ask yourself if your volunteers talk to their friends about that work. And if yes, what would they be saying? You must be a cause that other people would like to be associated with.
I’ve also seen some organizations bring volunteering inflation upon themselves. Although seemingly a good thing, too many volunteers for little work actually destroys a community. Many of them request more volunteers than necessary for their work, explaining that the bigger the number, the less work for each. And the effect is the opposite. When they arrive and see that their service is not that pressing and necessary they will not believe you next time when you plead for help and they assume you already have people lined up and just want extra back up. It’s better to create more work for volunteer rather than rejoice in how little they – and you – have to do. They don’t resent the work if they are already there; they want to be where their work will be meaningful and needed.
Do not look at volunteering as free low-skill labor. Think about it as pro-bono work by highly qualified professionals. They are not eager college students or retired ladies with lots of time on their hands, but people with expertise with whom you want to create a network – of love, expertise, passion. Find their expertise, seek their opinion. And don’t present them as “Larry, who helped us so much with the distribution of those free lunches”, but instead “Larry, he is an accountant who contributes the much needed number power to our work in so many ways”. In other words, treat Larry as the mother who also does boring chores.
If you have other suggestions, please feel free to add.