I love working with volunteers and being part of the good they are creating in the world. As I have worked in the volunteer field I have made observations in regards to how people “do good”.
Volunteer programs are essential to nonprofits and to the communities those nonprofits serve. They build capacity for providing education, services and advocacy around important social issues. They also create community by bringing together people who are passionate about the same issue; the original Facebook group. Originally many of these nonprofits began because there was some void in support or services for a particular group of people. And just like any industry people realized it would be more efficient to build a unified structure to deliver these supports and services. As nonprofits became more prolific the community began to more regularly look to nonprofits as a source of information, support and service. Everything was looking good. We had an issue, a group from the community decided to do something about it and now we have an institution to rely on. Peachy.
There is nothing wrong with this model but I do believe it has had an effect on how we “do good” in the world. People rely on nonprofits for their services but also as a way to impact their community, they become volunteers. Volunteering means going to an institution in order to make a difference; getting permission to help someone. The result is a person might not recognize their neighbor is hungry and in turn offer to invite that family over for dinner. Instead they search for a volunteer opportunity to work at a food shelf or kitchen to serve families affected by food scarcity; maybe ending up serving at the food shelf their neighbors go to. In some ways we have institutionalized good. Through the system of service we have shifted the responsibility of people taking care of people and neighbors taking care of neighbors to an institution.
I believe there is a balance in providing opportunities through nonprofits to serve others and empowering and encouraging people to take action immediately when they see the need in their community. As a professional Volunteer Manager I would encourage my colleagues to understand this balance of collaboration and empowerment. As organizers we have the opportunity to bring people together and also give them the knowledge, tools and maybe the push they need to make a difference in the world. We can balance bringing people into our organization with supporting the organic service they are doing in their community.
Test this theory:
If you are wondering whether or not you live in a neighborhood where people take care of people and neighbors take care of neighbors do this one activity. Go to each house on your block and ask for a cup of sugar. Let me know how many cups of sugar you collected and what you learned about your neighbors.
I just read a great YNPN blog entry by Lisa Thalacker Joyslin about transforming volunteer work into employment. She had some marvelous tips on how to approach it. Almost anyone looking for a job in the nonprofit field will tell you that networking and the people you know is your fastest way into a job. Employers are getting hundreds of competitive resumes for every opening. Employers are looking more favorably on volunteer experience as a way to distinguish between applicants. If there is one tip I could give someone about turning volunteering into employment it is: volunteer within the cause you want to be employed. Don’t worry so much about volunteering for the organization you want to be employed at. The nonprofit world is small despite the fact that we have thousands of organizations in the state. If you are able to get on the right committee or task force you will soon be meeting other professionals and volunteers within the cause and probably some from the organization you really want to work for. And don’t stop with just volunteering within the cause. Make sure you are going to educational events, networking events and fundraisers that other organizations are putting on. Because you believe in the cause it will be obvious that you are authentically there beyond just searching for employment. You will stand out.
Volunteering for employment is the long game. It is not a shortcut to a job. Volunteering gives you opportunities for skill development, leadership opportunities and experiences beyond what you have been educated, trained or paid for in the past. Reflecting on my past five years as a manager for the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota I can see that I have had the opportunity for mentorship and growth within my position. But because I also took time to take on leadership roles in other state wide organizations I have turned five years of experience into 15 years of experience. This added experience has given me tools to apply to my day job and it has also given me clarity in making decisions about my future. If you only do what you are paid to do your professional growth will be slow. Accelerate yourself as a professional and volunteer. You will reap great rewards for yourself, and who knows it may get you a job too.
“It’s not really volunteering if you are forcing me to do it”. I have volunteered almost my entire life. One of my earliest memories is walking in Take Back the Night marches with my mom. I guess I probably volunteered to go with her; I don’t remember throwing a temper tantrum in protest. As I went through school it became increasingly common to have a volunteer obligation connected with getting to the next grade. It seemed like a good idea for schools to ask their students to volunteer. The school was promoting good works in the community, it was giving the students experience, the students got to broaden their networks and horizons by meeting new people and do new things. It seems like a win for everyone.
Many forms of volunteering give the volunteer some sort of benefit; maybe it is a job reference, credit for school, developing professional skills or building their resume. There is nothing wrong with getting something out of volunteering. I have seen people very successfully leverage their volunteer experience into a new job or school application. This is great. It also shows us that volunteering isn’t “supposed” to be one specific thing. For those of you out there working with youth volunteers I would encourage you to add evaluation as a key piece to their experience. By adding reflection into the orientation, training or end of the day wrap up you will avoid having the experience be only about the extrinsic reward and instead will uncover all the intrinsic gems that come from volunteering.
Check out these reflection activities for groups put out by California State University, Fullerton
This morning I heard someone from a large organization that works on aging issues in the U.S. say “chronological aging is increasingly becoming irrelevant”. I thought this was an interesting statement. He was referring to the fact that age does not define us as much as it used to. Due to advances in medicine, technological advances and I would also say cultural changes; we are all able to stay active later into our lives. I can’t imagine what the Gen Y retirees will look like; double solitaire and cribbage in a 3D environment with someone in Germany.
In 2030 18% of our population will be people over 65. The sheer numbers of this demographic will have profound affect on many different parts of our society. This group will also redefine community. They will redefine community because the assisted living industry will have to change to accommodate individuals who want to increasingly stay independent and also because we are going to have 18% of our nation who are not putting in 40 hours of work a week! In my head I picture neighborhoods in the summer when kids are out of school; playing kickball, riding bikes, getting into trouble. But instead of kids we will have mature adults with years of skills, knowledge and experience and they are probably going to still want to use it. I don’t believe their hands will stay idle. They will keep busy one way or another.
The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) put together a great list of best practices to engage this demographic in solving social issues. You can check them out at www.mavanetwork.org.
I get to spend my 30th birthday with a group of very innovative and smart professionals from around the state working on engaging boomers and future generations of volunteers. The Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration has an advanced training for nonprofit professionals to make sure they don’t miss the opportunity of engaging passionate, skilled and experienced community members. I have had the privilege of providing this training over the past few years with Terry Straub and Colleen Fritsch for hundreds of people around the state.
What I have noticed is that people are hungry for information and tools to create solutions through community engagement. And I have noticed this isn’t just about boomers. People are realizing the issues facing people they serve are to big and complex to be dealt with only through paid staff within an organization. The people I get to work with today are looking at building capacity to serve their communities and turn over generating solutions to people from those communities.
This work is really about systems change for organizations. Many organizations will need to change their structure and how they serve their community. There are very few forces which catalyze organizations to make dramatic changes in their service structure. Understanding that people in the community have the answers is a start.