I sit in a lot of meetings with other nonprofit organization leaders and every time the topic of volunteers come up, there seems to be a clear divide between those organizations that sigh at the thought or get excited about the topic.
Volunteers are people and people have motivations. A volunteer comes to you because they wanted to make a transaction of their time and skills in exchange for the expectations they set out to have met. They come to you because they believe you can facilitate the experience they desire based on some social influence or values alignment. In order to evaluate whether you can meet their expectations, they engage you through questions and requests that require you to respond to with relative urgency, clear content, and a welcoming service-focused energy. These volunteers are likely doing this with multiple organizations at the same time or at least evaluating your responses against previous experiences they’ve had. Does this sound like most consumer driven transactions you’ve made?
At NeighborLink recently, we were approached by a local bank wanting to do a service event in celebration of their first full year in our community. Internally, a team of employees decided doing a community impact project where there bank invested a significant amount of money, engaged employees and customers of the bank, and partnered with a community minded organization was a great way to celebrate this new milestone for the bank. Brainstorming happens, ideas solidified, and the pursuit of the right community partner took place.
They heard about NeighborLink, reached out, and pitched us on what THEY had in mind and wanted to know if we could facilitate it. They new we helped homeowners and had a lot of requests for assistance. They were inspired by a TV show that renovated entire blocks in a neighborhood over the course of a week, and wanted to do something similar. They had a set of expectations, came to us, and we had to decide whether we could help them.
Renovating entire blocks is not exactly the work we do at NeighborLink. It’s true we help neighbors in need with home maintenance projects, but we only help those that are requesting help. In the 12 years we’ve been around, we’ve not a block where every house had a neighbor in need. So, we have an option to get frustrated by an idea pitched to us that is outside of exactly what we do by volunteers, or we can take this as an opportunity to discover what they really want to accomplish and facilitate it through NeighborLink.
The organizations that sigh at volunteers are those organizations that have little imagination or appreciation for the resources volunteers can offer. The requests, demands, and attitudes of volunteers can be frustrating at times. Volunteers need their own lessons in being good consumers of volunteer experiences. However, organizations need to take a step back, recognize that you are facilitating a transaction with someone and then figure out a process to do that well.
For some reason, when I recognize that every interaction with a new volunteer resembles a consumer driven transaction, it help disarm the situation and helps me understand that this individual wants an experience and I’m here to provide that.
Volunteers owe us nothing. Donors owe us nothing. Our organizations are here to benefit the portion of society our mission focuses on. They were created by individuals that had a passion and willingness to invest they’re time and money towards finding a solution. We only survive because there are others around us that want to do the same thing. When they reach out to you, they want to know whether you’re really like them or not.
The bank that came to NeighborLink had an idea of doing a block renovation project because that’s what they saw that related to the spirit of the idea. After talking to them, what they really wanted to do was to help people in need and show the community that they care. A few questions on our end and a bit of education on how to make the biggest impact, they were sold on the reality that they could have a greater personal impact by selecting neighbors in close proximity that are already asking for help. So, we’re facilitating that and it’s going to be better for us all.
I could have sighed because that bank was just another group of volunteers wanting something from us that we don’t provide nor aligns with what I want to get done as the director of NeighborLink. I chose to recognize that they want to invest in helping others and it was my opportunity to help them do that in a way that it benefits both of us. They get to do a big project and we get to help some neighbors.
Volunteers are consumers and want what they want. The very fact they reached out to you to make their transaction instead of another organization is like winning the lottery in my book. We have missions to execute and we can’t do it alone. Train your staff to think of volunteers as consumers and give them the customer service training they need to solve the problems, identify the opportunities, and capture the resources being offered. Not every volunteer is going to choose you in the end and you may need to point them in another direction, but please stop sighing at the thought of volunteers. Or don’t, and send them to NeighborLink.