Is the word “volunteer” limiting recruitment?

I’m concerned that the word Volunteer may be limiting our ability to recruit some very needed assistance.

If I had to wager a guess, I’d bet that when most people hear the word Volunteer they are likely to think of direct service —  like building a house for a deserving family, or serving meals  at a soup kitchen, or cutting trails or dragging debris out of a river on Earth Day.

Programs that promote volunteerism or community service jobs tend to focus on these shorter term, immediate reward type of assignments.

But every day I encounter small organizations that desperately could use a different type of volunteer, like someone to:

  • show up each day to answer the phone or file papers,
  • see that important communications tasks are completed, like getting the newsletter out the door (or into email) on a regular schedule, keeping the mailing list up-to-date, managing the twitter feeds, or sending thank you notes to donors,
  • organize the monthly open house to introduce prospective donors to their organization,
  • help with cash flow analysis or long-term revenue projections, or
  • plan and implement those monthly programs from start to finish.

They especially could use someone willing to serve as their volunteer coordinator, a volunteer who understands that some of the best service they could give would be to help recruit self-managing volunteers for these other important, but not so obvious, assignments.

Did I forget to mention serving on the Board?

The Samaritans have telephone befrienders, those highly trained volunteers who staff their 24 hour suicide prevention hotlines.

Museums and zoos recruit docents, those volunteers who agree to specialized training and a long term commitment so they can lead tours or provide information to visitors. Docent sounds so much more important than a mere volunteer, don’t you think?

I think it’s time for some serious brainstorming to come up with a slew of new words to describe fundraising, financial, operations and project manager volunteers.

All ideas welcome.

3 responses to Is the word “volunteer” limiting recruitment?

  1. Grace Meng

    I think there’s a lot that nonprofits could learn from open source projects, whether it’s actual software or something like Wikipedia or Yelp. They often rely heavily on volunteers, yet these volunteers feel like Wikipedians, part of a community, rather than mere volunteers, which isn’t that compelling as you point out.

    I’m working with a young nonprofit called The Common Data Project that seeks to facilitate the safe and private release of sensitive personal data for research and public policy. We expect that the amount of data we will need to curate and manage will require a huge amount of volunteer involvement, and we’re thinking through ways to create incentives for people to get involved, including ways to compliment and reward people for their work through the community rather than a top-down pat on the back from management. I’ve written a top ten list on how communities function here:, and we’ve written about our governance plan for our volunteer/user community here:

    I’d love to hear what you think. Obviously, not all nonprofits can utilize technology the way Wikipedia can, but many of the principles could probably be applied in low-tech settings.

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      I’m intrigued. Do you think with the concern over privacy ala the Facebook storm that people would send sensitive personal data to an online resource? And how would that data be used? How would it be different from what is already collected out there?

  2. Grace Meng

    Right now, so much data that’s collected and released, even by government agencies, is not as “anonymous” as people claim. There’s been some interesting research around it (if you Google Netflix prize and re-identification, you’ll find the most recent controversy). Our idea is that differential privacy technology can enable valuable data to accessed in flexible ways because the technology mathematically will refuse to give you identifying answers, but will give you aggregate answers that are still useful for your work.

    For example, public health agencies often release county by county stats on illnesses like diabetes, but they don’t release addresses for obvious reasons. Because the data is predigested and released, though, other people can’t come along, use those stats, and study whether miles from fast-food makes a difference. With our nonprofit, the agency could place the raw data behind a privacy filter, and others could query the data, with the promise that no one could be identified.

    There are a lot of outstanding questions, obviously. There’s a lot of information on our blog and website. What I found interesting about your post is that it gets to a fundamental challenge for us. If this is a database of personal data, how can we structure “ownership” or responsibility of the organization so as to ensure that the board and staff don’t violate the mission and the trust of those who’ve donated their data? All nonprofits seek to be trustworthy–we obviously REALLY have to be trustworthy.

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