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Volunteer Shortages: Instead of Answers, We Need the Power of Questions

Volunteer Shortages: Instead of Answers, We Need the Power of Questions

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While Points of View argues that a new energy is emerging in volunteering, the picture isn’t so clear to Holly Daniels of MAVA (Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement). In this Engage feature, Daniels taps into her daily connections with Volunteer Engagement Leaders to explore the question: “Where have all the volunteers gone?” As she presents some familiar and not-so familiar theories, Daniels argues that the field needs the power of questions – and not just answers – to move forward. “The sky is not falling and people have not stopped caring about their communities,” Daniels writes. “Today’s volunteer shortage could be a signal that what volunteers require from and expect of organizations is changing and shifting.” 

To read the full article

Mon, 07/25/2022

I'm overwhelmed with people wanting to volunteer. People want to! But they visit a web site and

  • it's not clear how to sign up to do it.
  • it's not clear what roles are available, what the time commitment is for each role, how long the roles last, what skills are needed, if training is provided. 
  • volunteers aren't celebrated - it's just "We have all this work to do - come do it for free."
  • the photos are all of one demographic volunteering - looks like people not in that demographic won't be included. 
  • the web site doesn't work on their phone. 
  • volunteering just looks like a lot of work, but not fun, or not really making a difference. 
  • no benefits of volunteering there are listed. 

Same for their listing on Volunteer Match. 

And maybe they do finally figure out how to sign up, or they sign up on a third party site. And

  • it takes weeks or months for the agency to get back to them - and they aren't available anymore. 
  • they find out that it requires a lot more training than they expected.
  • they find out the training or orientation can be done only on Tuesday at 6 p.m. - a time they aren't available. 
  • they didn't realize they couldn't bring their kid(s). 

There are people posting to subreddits and on Twitter, looking for volunteering opportunities. I've posted over and over on a variety of social media, even reached out specifically to people and organizations, begging them to post to the volunteer subreddit about their volunteering opportunities. Nada. 

I think the bigger questions you have offered are really important and worth the time to explore, But there are some very practical things that a nonprofit needs to do FIRST before it thinks this is all a reflection of uncontrollable societal problems. 

Diagnosing the causes of volunteer recruitment problems.




Wed, 07/27/2022

Jayne, we’re big fans of yours over at MAVA! Thanks for your comment and thoughts. I totally hear you! My mom wants to volunteer in her town, and she can’t figure out what the opportunities are — even her friends who are social workers say, “just check with your church.” It’s mind-boggling to me! I believe you 1000% that this is the experience of so many people who want to volunteer. Not to mention everything you said — that even when people do identify opportunities, registering is confusing, they never hear back, the roles look like too much work/commitment and no meaningful payoff, etc.

I was trying to get at the perspective of volunteer engagement leaders: What used to work isn’t working any more, so now what? I think adaptive action is an amazing tool to use when we can’t see a path forward, like so many of the volunteer managers who are frustrated and overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, but who want to (and need to) try something different with volunteer recruitment.

So, even though I definitely believe there are external factors (HSD would call them patterns) affecting the number of people who are coming to organizations to volunteer, AND our volunteer engagement strategies are often out-dated and exclusionary, we are not powerless. I believe volunteer engagement leaders can find a “now what” action if they stay curious, which often means letting go of defensiveness so they can self-reflect on the barriers they've created internally that keep volunteers from coming. And if they can ask themselves the right questions about what they know for sure, what meaning can be made, and what the options are, they can pick one action to take, and move in the direction they want to go.

The options you laid out here and in your article on “Diagnosing the Causes of Volunteer Recruitment Problems” are legit! If somebody’s “now what” action is posting about their opportunities on the Volunteer subreddit, then seeing what happens, that’s exactly what I’m talking about! I’m curious to know more about your time in that subreddit — do you post questions for people about volunteerism? Have you written about what you've learned from that community? 


Sun, 07/31/2022

Thanks for the article, Holly. I am a big believer in the power of good questions. 

Jayne, your reference of the Reddit and Twitter comments makes me wonder if one of the questions we need to ask is, "What if there isn't a shortage of volunteers?" or its flip, "What if there are plenty of volunteer prospects?"

My guess is that the shortage is in agencies that are able and/or ready to welcome volunteer prospects with language, processes, roles, timelines, etc. that are inviting. Or in agencies that have someone who is thinking about and doing these things. 

Are there environmental shifts that impact volunteerism? Yes. Are there internal practices we can influence that can support volunteer (and agency) success? Also, yes. HSD and getting to the right questions seem like a useful tool to help us understand both levels.