Are your volunteer practices turning volunteers off forever?

  • Are volunteers a finite or infinitely renewable natural resource?
  • Does each nonprofit have an obligation to our whole sector to create satisfying experiences that regenerate volunteers?
  • Are poor volunteer practices not only driving people away from the offending organization but also souring volunteers against any volunteer service in the future?

These are some of the questions provoked by an intriguing article in the article “It Ain’t Natural: Toward a New (Natural) Resource Conceptualization for Volunteer Management” in the August 2009 edition of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly .

While the title screams academia, the ideas raised by the authors  Jeffrey L. Brudney of Cleveland State University and Lucas C. P. M. Meijs of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, deserve serious discussion and wide exposure within our sector.

Citing a a study done by the Corporation for National and Community Service, Brudney and Meijs warn that “a staggering one in three Americans evidently dropped out of volunteering between 2005 and 2006.” They note that other studies document similar problems in other countries.

The authors suggest that nonprofits in general are too preoccupied with recruiting volunteers and don’t pay enough attention to retaining them.

I’m sure you’ve heard someone lament (and maybe even have said it yourself): “we can’t find enough good volunteers.”

What if, the authors suggest, instead of treating “volunteer energy” as a resource with an inexhaustible supply, we  perceived volunteers as a resource that could actually run out?

How would our behavior need to change?

I find this concept incredibly intriguing, especially because it fits very nicely into my”we’re all in this together” framework of civil society.

Imagine that you are a first time volunteer. You’ve been thinking about doing something good for your community so you’ve found your way to a volunteer job through family, friend or volunteer center.  You’re excited, but a little unsure of your role and how you might contribute.

It’s likely that it may take quite a while before you hear from the organization at all. Or, they contact you quickly but they don’t really have any volunteer needs right now. No one takes the time to find out what skills you have or what else you might have to offer.

Or maybe they have a job, but in reality it is pretty undefined. You are assigned to a staff member (or another volunteer) who simply doesn’t have the time to train you and makes you feel as if you are in their way. You never really get a good idea of what you should be doing  or how to do it successfully.  And you just have this gut feeling that the job they handed you probably isn’t very important if no one can take the time to get you started.

Maybe your experience is somewhat different. Maybe you are a pretty secure self-starter who doesn’t need a lot of direction. Or maybe you arrived as part of a larger group. You can jump right into the task and successfully complete your assignment with minimal supervision. And you feel pretty good about what you’ve accomplished and are ready for the next task.  But once you’re done with that assignment, it’s as if you’ve never been there. No thanks. No call backs. End of connection.

What would you do if this described your volunteer experience over and over again? My guess is that you’d likely give up on volunteering and go do something more personally satisfying, like spending time with your family or shopping with friends.

When one organization treats a volunteer badly, they are likely to lose that volunteer. But imagine what happens when thousands of  volunteers have negative experiences at organization after organization. Eventually, it’s simply not worth volunteering any more. No reward. Been there. Done that. Over.

I love that the authors challenge us to rethink our  attitude about volunteers. They suggest that each organization has a societal obligation to keep volunteer energy flowing, to ensure the sustainability of the resource, to “attract people into volunteering and keep them volunteering over the [course of their lives].”

Volunteers are not put on this earth to be used and discarded by one organization.

Each of us are responsible to each other for the volunteers who come under our umbrella. Though our own organization may only need a volunteer for a particular assignment, our society needs that volunteer to keep volunteering over their lifetime.

In the authors’ world, a truly “regenerative” approach to volunteering produces fruitful outcomes for nonprofits and creates rewarding volunteer experiences that matter to our communities and keep volunteers volunteering. Who can’t sign on to that!


P.S. Now, to really get your blood flowing, imagine applying this same concept to our board recruits.

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