“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know about Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know about the second theory of thermo-dynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”  – Martin Luther King

Sometimes we come across people who spend their free time volunteering in different organizations and charitable institutions.

Why do people get involved as a volunteer in an organization?

What is the motivation for people to take their time, money and talent to become involved?

What does it take for volunteers to get involved and stay involved?

People do things for their reasons, not yours, so our role is to create an organization culture that stimulates the inner motivation of each volunteer.

Volunteering is important for numerous reasons that benefit both the community and the volunteer themselves.

Volunteering is what makes a community because it brings people together to work on a goal.

By bringing people together to act for the good of the community, voluntary action creates bonds of trust and encourages cooperation; in other words, it creates social capital. If the people who volunteer happen to be of different ethnic origins, religions, and economic status, the fact of their acting together can help to increase social harmony.

The possibilities of volunteering are endless. But really, Why Is Volunteering Important? Why do people do it?

Most people respond to three levels of motivation which are self-serving drive, relational drive and belief drive.

When we volunteer our time for a good cause; the rewards we reap are far greater than any promotion we could get from work; or good grades we get from school.

Volunteerism delivers impressive social benefits. Through voluntary action people create groupings that can cement social norms and inculcate a sense of civic responsibility and belonging (The ESSENTIALS of October 2002 on the topic of ‘Civic Engagement’ offers further analysis and lessons specifically on interaction with civil society).

Research suggests that when networks of voluntary organizations are created which link different interest groups, the increased interaction leads to improved understanding and increased tolerance of diversity (UNV/Institute for Volunteering Research. ‘Volunteering and Social Development: A Background Paper’. New York, 1999, p9-10).

The participatory aspect of volunteerism can contribute to a heightened understanding of the forces which shape governments and societies, leading to greater transparency, accountability and improved governance. Volunteerism also has an important economic impact.

In countries where empirical studies exist, the contribution of volunteering is estimated to be between 8% and 14% of Gross Domestic Product.

On an individual level, volunteerism contributes to capacity building processes by helping the individual volunteer to develop marketable skills, providing access to workplace networks and boosting confidence and self-esteem (ATD Fourth World. ‘Volunteering & Social Inclusion’, 2000.)

Volunteering rates among young people are generally higher than they are among adults 26 and older. However, measuring volunteer rates among all adults is a difficult task (“Measurement of Volunteering: A Methodological Study Using Indiana as a Test Case” in the Non-profit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, Volume 31, issue 4, 2002 by Kathryn Steinberg, Patrick Rooney, and William Chin).

Understanding Volunteer

In order to recruit and manage volunteers effectively, voluntary managers must understand what it is that attracts, maintains or scares off current and potential volunteers.

This understanding of volunteers needs to occur at two levels.

The first is to understand people (and therefore potential volunteers) in general: to understand what their lives are like; what they expect; why they volunteer. Later sections of the report will address this more general understanding.

However, organisations also need to understand their volunteers on a more personal level.

They need to understand what makes those particular volunteers that approach their organisation tick and the best way to do this is to ask.

Ideally, this will be done from the time volunteers approach an organisation right through to the day they leave.

By knowing what volunteers expect from their experience, volunteer managers can better prepare them for what the realities are, ensuring that they do not go away disillusioned.

For example, it could be explained to volunteer that in order for the organisation to provide effective hands-on support, the organisation needs to raise a certain amount of funds for training and equipment.

It could also be negotiated that the volunteer would be trained in a more hands-on role after three months of helping on the fundraising team.

The important point to remember is that if volunteer managers never ask about expectations, they will have no idea why their new and enthusiastic recruits disappear after their first assignments.

Research from the Work Foundation reveals that ‘interesting and stimulating work’ was considered to be the most important factor (named by 40% of its sample) that made an employer good to work for(Kamarade, D. and B. Burchell (2004). “Teleworking and participatory capital: Is teleworking an isolating or a community friendly form of work?” European Sociological Review 20(4): 1-17).

People increasingly feel that if they look hard enough or wait long enough, something that more exactly suits their needs and desires will appear.

It is arguable that this exposure to greater choice and information in people’s everyday lives is what is driving the demand for more flexible volunteering opportunities.

Volunteers now expect a lot more from charities in terms of being given meaningful work, having a say in how the organisation is run and receiving appropriate training, support and recognition.

Volunteers now want to know exactly what it is that they are getting into and how it compares with what others are offering. And they may be prepared to shop around.

Volunteers’ indication that they are primarily motivated by a belief in the cause and a desire to make a difference would suggest that if it is made clear to them that their role (no matter how mundane) contributes to the greater cause of the organisation, they will remain engaged.

Other key motivations that are frequently mentioned both by volunteers and volunteer managers are training and skills, social opportunities, and the desire for an experience or insight.

Future Volunteerism

In the same way that the government shapes economic or environmental policy, so too should charities be consciously shaping the volunteering experience and brand.

The future of volunteering will be what voluntary organisations make of it.

Although there are many social trends that will influence who volunteers and how, it is ultimately the sector itself that will determine whether the volunteering product is something that people want to buy into.

It was widely argued that volunteering was in need of a new brand or image, but there is a question of what this brand should be.

Should it be ‘fun and career enhancing’ on what young people are looking for?

Should it appeal to the generation of retiring baby boomers who are looking to keep their lives busy, socially engaged and fulfilled?

Or should it aim to increase diversity by appealing to sections of society?

The answer seems obvious – it needs to encapsulate a degree of all of the above.

We cannot have one message or one image and expect it to appeal to all age groups and all cultures and the volunteering brand needs to reflect dynamism and diversity.

So whose job is it to nurture this volunteering brand? It is the role of the individual voluntary organisations and volunteer managers that is paramount to the brand’s success and when addressing the brand of volunteering it is worth considering how the beneficiary is depicted.

Too often in most of the society, volunteering is conceptualised as a generous gift of time from the empowered and virtuous volunteer to the helpless recipient.

It is arguable that more needs to be made of the interconnectedness between volunteer and beneficiary and that the elements the beneficiary brings to the table should be better promoted.

Professionalization of Volunteers

There has been much talk about the professionalization of volunteers and volunteer management – but what does this really mean and why is it important?

In many ways, the professionalization of volunteering was seen as an artefact of good practice; as volunteers are increasingly responsible for frontline work with beneficiaries, it becomes more and more important to ensure appropriate standards and checks.

The important role that volunteers play in representing any charitable organisation was also seen as a compelling argument for extending professionalization.

This means that it is crucial to invest in the appropriate infrastructure to ensure that volunteers are effective advocates.

Part of this is about ensuring that there are appropriate recruitment, evaluation, grievance and dismissal processes in place; the one force more powerful than a happy volunteer is an unhappy volunteer.

Professionalization of the sector as a whole was inevitable, given the increasingly educated and professional backgrounds of key participants.

This was obviously an issue, even back in 1997, when 71% of respondents to the National Survey of Volunteering in the UK said that a major drawback of volunteering was that their organisations were not properly organised.

Greater professionalization was not, however, a reason to deny volunteers the greater flexibility, creativity and autonomy they might expect in their roles in exchange for their gift of time.

Instead, it was proposed that volunteers should have all of this within a well-managed framework that makes clear the procedures and consequences inherent in any situation.

Perhaps the most important point made was that the professionalization of volunteering does not mean turning voluntary work into the equivalent of paid work but actually it means that volunteers should be managed in a way that increases their effectiveness and decreases the risk of any ill effects or fall outs.

Volunteerism Needs Effective Management and Support

If you wanted to build a house, would you hire a fishmonger? If you wanted your garden tended, would you call an accountant?

Of course not. So why do we insist on matching volunteers with tasks with which they are not particularly suited? And why are recruitment messages so consistently generic and unimaginative?

In the report ‘Understanding Canadian Volunteers’, Norah McClintock recommends a five-step process for targeting specific volunteers for specific tasks in a considered and effective manner.

1.   Define the task/role that needs to be addressed (wish list).

2.   Select an appropriate target group.

3.   Consider:

• What are their motivations?

• What are the barriers to their involvement?

4.   Based on key motivations and barriers, consider how the task/role could be packaged.

5.   Outline your message:

• What will the volunteer gain?

• What will the task/role accomplish for your organisation/for the community?

When designing the tasks/roles that need to be addressed, it is vital that organisations continually refer back to their vision and mission. What is the organisation trying to achieve? How is it trying to do this?

Are there things the charity would like to achieve that are not currently being addressed? Are there things the charity is currently doing well that it would like to do more of?

Are there things the charity is currently doing that could be done better? And finally, what are the discrete tasks and roles in all of this for which volunteers could be responsible (also called a ‘wish list’)?

By taking this vision/mission driven approach, charities not only ensure that volunteers are being managed effectively to fulfil the organisation’s purpose, they also make it easier for volunteers to see ‘the point’ in what they are doing; it makes it easier to communicate and sell the ways in which volunteers are actually making a difference.

For those organisations that lack volunteers, the use of the ‘wish list’ of volunteer tasks and more targeted advertising will help attract the right volunteers.

For those lucky organisations that have a surplus of volunteers it will provide a strategy for actually using their talent and good will!

In designing any volunteering opportunity, the key is to ensure that there is a clear beginning, middle and end so that volunteers do not feel that they are signing their life away.

Part of this is about giving volunteers the chance to feel that they are making progress.

Even for longer-term roles, it is therefore important to ensure the volunteer has some short and medium-term goals to help keep them motivated. Volunteer managers can even encourage volunteers to set these goals themselves.

Volunteers will often set much more challenging goals than managers would, and research has shown that the very act of setting a goal means a person is more likely to achieve it (Locke, E. A. and G. P. Latham (1990). A theory of goal setting and task performance. New Jersey, Prentice Hall).

The way in which volunteering is defined and packaged absolutely matters because it affects the way in which volunteers are perceived by staff and volunteer managers.

This then shapes the way in which different types of volunteers are treated within the organisation and in turn influences volunteers’ own perception of their roles.

Volunteering is often seen both by volunteers themselves and the voluntary organisations they serve as a favour, a gift.

This perception is shaped as much by the voluntary organisations that rely on desperate-sounding appeals to the grace and virtue of potential volunteers as by volunteers own sense that they are giving something for free.

Volunteering is more than a mere gift of time; it is an opportunity; a privilege; a stride towards greatness.

And we can all give the gift of time to others: our children, our parents, our friends, our children’s school, our street, our community and our world.

But giving time is a gift that gives back as well because giving time is now as much about what we get back, as what we give.

Volunteering can help volunteers overcome loneliness, meet friends, gain skills, get jobs, or just feel good about themselves.