Massive change is sweeping through the business world. Corporate Social Responsibility is precipitating thousands of new Employer-Sponsored Volunteer Programs. But can non-profit organizations handle the huge increase of volunteers coming their way? Maybe not. If non-profits do not reinvent their current volunteer management model, they threaten to suffocate these brilliant new efforts and disenfranchise the volunteers who come through their programs.
Non-profits and community organizations are due for a change: they must understand that volunteers are the key to achieving their mission. Unfortunately, this new understanding will require NPO’s to demote their entire staff.
Less is More
When it comes to working with volunteers, the less you do, the more you will get done. By focusing on the few things required to create a great volunteer experience, you will be able to maximize the efforts of dozens - maybe even thousands. The alternative approach utilizes volunteers to maximize the efforts of a handful of staff. This option is run by the “genius with a thousand helpers”
and will consistently bottleneck the organization. It also squashes all ingenuity and energy outside the parameters of the 'genius'' own comfort.
If you are the type of leader who is able to facilitate the efforts and individual contributions of others, then there is little limiting your potential. They key is found in how you perceive yourself, and what you understand your role to be.
Some Conditions Apply
The instructions are simple: Don’t do the work yourself. Instead, your job is to make it possible for others to do the work. For that to happen there are Four Conditions that need to be met:
- Motivation. Volunteers need the right motivation. You need to take into account the three Horizons of Meaning that we have touched on previously; a) What do you hope to accomplish through the opportunities offered? b) What does the work require? c) What is the volunteer looking for from this opportunity?
- Movement. Volunteers need to be invited into a participative role in the mission. We’ll talk more about this in the weeks to come, but the key to doing more through volunteers is becoming a missional organization. Mobilizing great numbers of volunteers (whatever that may look like for you) to take up the cause and achieve the mission has to become the foundational strategy of your organization.
- Structure. Volunteers need you to be organized. This means understandable strategies, clear communication, a stated mission, vision and values, good metrics, etc. This is the basic stuff that enables people to function together and gain that sense of movement - precisely because we are able to move in the same direction.
- Space. Volunteers need to be met at their highest level of contribution. Treating everyone the same is exactly the wrong thing to do. Instead, we must provide the right kind of space for people to interact with us, our community and our cause based on whether they are investigating, beginning to invest, or fully invested.
Ok, so the job is to mobilize volunteers to achieve the goal. Assuming this is the case, we are willing to take steps to ensure that the Four Conditions are met. From here on it’s easy, right? Well, yes and no. I’ve found that the real problem staff have with this approach is not the hard work it takes to get the organization ready, nor is it a simple change in mindset. Nope, the real hang-ups come with the face-to-face stuff.
I remember working with a colleague at a community meal a few years back. He was a phenomenal guy, lots of talent and mad skills when it came to interacting with men and women off the street. Volunteers loved him as well. He was funny, charismatic and competent. Problem was, he was doing too much. The volunteers were waiting for their chance to help him out, but he was busy doing the work himself. Consequently, many of our volunteers stood around feeling a bit un-needed. The problem wasn’t our set up. It wasn’t our directions or communication. The problem was my friend. He was too helpful, too willing, too able. He was doing too much himself.
So I took him aside to discuss how we could involve the volunteers. He was eager to listen and understand - like I said, a phenomenal guy. He absolutely believed in allowing volunteers to play a key role in what we were doing. He had helped ensure that the Four Conditions were a part of our organization. Turns out he simply felt bad asking people to do what he could easily do himself. He figured they might wonder why he would ask them to do something simple when they could both see that he could accomplish it in the same amount of time it was taking to pass it off. Made sense actually. People hate being humored. I hate being humored. Busy work feels trivial. And yet when people are investigating this is exactly the kind of work they need and want. These seemingly trivial tasks offer a sense of belonging, purpose and achievement. (As long as the task really is necessary and not concocted.) So, I made a suggestion:
“Carry milk,” I said.
“Grab a pitcher of milk in one hand, some cups in the other, and carry them with you as you tell the volunteers how they can help,” I replied.
He sighed. “Why?” He was looking at me like I had incurred a brain injury since we had last spoken.
“Cause,” I said slowly like I was giving the answer to a clever pun. “If people see that you are busy with a task, they won’t mind doing what you ask.”
He looked at me, grinned, and grabbed the milk.
From that day on, we adopted the “carry milk” philosophy. It became a metaphor for dealing with the awkwardness that can accompany the assigning and accepting of tasks in a volunteer setting. The milk, or broom or rake - whatever - became the tool that allowed us to play the role our volunteers needed.
Demote the Staff
Your priority is your volunteer - they are your ticket to achieve the organization’s mission. Remember this as you demote your staff from “more” (do it yourself) to “less” (facilitate the ‘doing’ to everyone else). The switch has it’s perks, but it’s still a demotion, which doesn’t exactly feel good. Most of the time, staff interact with the community they are serving like a surgeon with a patient and they view volunteers as support staff; nurses handing over a scalpel during surgery. Lots of acclaim and recognition for the surgeon, with an “I couldn’t do it without all this help” for the nurses. “Demote the Staff” suggests that the doctor become the nurse, support staff, janitor - anything to make it possible for the volunteer to play the primary role. This flip is often difficult for staff, especially when they took the job with the organization to play the front line role.
Another difficult aspect of the demotion is that “facilitator” is a new job description and with it must come a change in philosophy. The former job description consisted of managing people and their tasks, but the facilitator will primarily manage the processes that make the ‘realized worth’ approach possible. The Four Conditions are now the main work of the staff. If the conditions are right, then the space is mostly automated, and there is little management required of the volunteers. The object of “carry milk” is to ensure that the space is right for volunteers, rather than managing the way people work in that space.
Making it Happen
Here are 6 steps to tapping into the unlimited potential of your volunteer program:
- Review your organization to ensure you have the key structures and systems in place. For an extremely comprehensive list of areas to consider and even some free online courses, click here.
- Make sure you understand what you want out of the project or enterprise you have undertaken. You probably already know what the work demands, but take the time to consider what your volunteers want out of the experience (probably not a plaque or t-shirt). Then, create events that allow all three of these horizons to converge.
- Meet people at their highest level of contribution by giving them meaningful work to do. By meaningful, I mean appropriate to the “stage” in which they find themselves. A first-time visitor should never be given significant responsibility, because it is meaningless to them. They are only investigating. Similarly, failing to involve long-time volunteers who are seriously invested in your work in the significant decision making, is virtually the same as telling them they are unnecessary.
- Sit down with your staff and explain the potential in making room for volunteers to become the primary drivers of your efforts. Guide them into understanding their role as facilitators and the managers of process, not people. Marcus Buckingham’s book ‘First Break All the Rules’ provides a great overview of this approach, albeit in a for-profit setting.
- Give your staff the tools, whether that be milk, brooms or clipboards, to comfortably function in these new understandings. This simple piece of the puzzle may in fact be the most necessary to executing the idea from the staffs perspective.
- Keep reading this blog. We’ll cover the final piece of this 6-part discussion next week and. The discussion will underscore why it is so important to view and utilize volunteers this way - it’s the difference between getting your job done, or changing the world.