Thinking the Unthinkable: Are We Using the Wrong Model for Volunteer Work?
Right now in volunteer management we are facing a rising tide: the increasing preference among potential volunteers for short-term, episodic volunteering. By all guesses, in practically all countries, the number of volunteers preferring a shorter term commitment is rising and there isn’t much on the futures forecast to give one hope for any reversal in this trend. We need to step back and take a concerted look at what we are asking volunteers to do and how we are asking them to do it. Most agencies, in fact, need to re-think their approach to volunteers entirely, including how to design volunteer positions.
First off, we need to dump the “volunteers as unpaid staff” paradigm.
See what our options are, if we are not afraid to challenge sacred cows.
Legend goes that one day King Canute of England was strolling along the seashore, enjoying the day and the fact that he was ruler of all he surveyed. As he walked the tide began to come in, interfering with his cruise along the beach. In a moment of hubris, he ordered the waves washing upon the beach to halt, confident in his power as king.
The waves rolled on.
Struggling against the inexorable tide is something we all face from time to time, and it’s worth noting that sometimes the struggle is noble and sometimes it is totally foolish, as Canute discovered.
Right now in volunteer management we are facing a similar rising tide, and one of the questions every program needs to face is whether to continue to struggle or to acquiesce to the inevitable. That tide is the increasing preference among potential volunteers for short-term, episodic volunteering. In case you missed the 1999 Independent Sector figures about all this:
- 41% of those who volunteered did so for a sporadic or one-time activity
- 39% wanted an ongoing scheduled commitment
- 9% volunteered once a year, usually at a holiday event
You can find similar data in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and practically every other country that’s done even a casual survey of volunteer attitudes. By all guesses, in practically all countries, the number of volunteers preferring a shorter term commitment is rising and (unless you’re praying for a tide of retiring seniors to have so little to do that they all jump for joy at the prospect of continuous long-term volunteer assignments) there isn’t much on the futures forecast to give one hope for any reversal in this trend.
Using the Wrong Model
The model for the creation of most volunteer positions has traditionally been an analogue to paid work: long-term, continuous jobs. If you look at the assignments open to volunteers in most organizations they could easily become paid positions – if the volunteer would simply show up for more hours. Organizations have tended to view volunteers as unpaid staff, which is nice in some ways, but unfortunate in that it leads organizations to design work for volunteers in the same fashion that work is typically designed for paid employees, especially in nonprofit and government settings:
- with the assumption that the role is ongoing (preferably forever), rarely to be reconsidered and even less likely to be eliminated at some point;
- aimed more at a generalist than a specialist;
- defined in somewhat broad, vague and open-ended lists of activities; and
- amorphous in terms of identifiable results.
As with many paid staff, the phrase “other duties as assigned” could effectively describe what kind of services are often performed by many volunteers.
This worked as long as we had a ready pool of volunteers who were content to hang around forever or who would significantly attach to a single organization or cause.
Times have changed.
The result is a lot of organizations panicking about getting enough volunteers. Unfortunately, most of them are attempting to solve the problem by increasing their recruitment efforts, and the bad news is that this is just fighting against the tide.
We need to step back and take a concerted look at what we are asking volunteers to do and how we are asking them to do it. Most agencies, in fact, need to re-think their approach to volunteers entirely, including how to design volunteer positions.
First off, we need to dump the “volunteers as unpaid staff” paradigm. Instead, we ought to consider volunteers as analogous to consultants– paid specialists who are retained to perform short-term projects, events, or activities. People whose work has a defined beginning, middle, end and desired outcome. People who know what they’re getting into and how long it’s going to take.
Take a close look at how many of your volunteer positions fit this description of a consultant, as opposed to the kind of work that just goes on and on and on.
But We Need Ongoing Help!
The instant response of some readers is going to be the protest that “we need volunteers to do work that is continuous because our clients must have ongoing assistance!”
We won’t directly argue with all that statement. Clients do need and deserve consistent, continuing service. However, the real question is whether, in the future, such service will be provided by volunteers or by paid staff. Just because it’s been done primarily by volunteers in the past shouldn’t imply that it can – or ought to - be done by volunteers in the future.
If you don’t believe that statement, look at the situations of the volunteer firefighting community in the US and the emergency services volunteers in Australia. It is abundantly clear that volunteers are capable of doing these types of serious, strenuous, skilled work. But what they can no longer do is be available 24/7 as these responsibilities demand. And why shouldn’t a community pay for that availability? Maybe we ought to utilize volunteers in the tax office or motor vehicle bureau and use that cash to pay for fire and emergency services!
This isn’t purely an either/or situation. Having a core staff of employees would allow coverage at all times, while volunteers can participate within more realistic time expectations. In truth, this is exactly the evolution that fire companies experienced in growing American cities, moving from a volunteer to a paid workforce as the demand grew. Is it macho resistance to change that has volunteer firefighters unwilling to face the obvious? So what’s the excuse of local government officials?
Another example of volunteer service that seems quite amazing to have remained vulnerable to uncertain volunteer schedules is meal delivery to the homebound. How did it happen that something as basic to survival as meals has become a “traditional” volunteer role? Whoa, all you Meals-on-Wheels and AIDS Buddy folks, stop shouting that the volunteer is visiting, not just handing out food. A little honesty might be in order. To fulfill the demands of their routes, few volunteers can spare much time for companionship if ten more meals are getting cold out in the car. And if you’ve ever been the scheduler of these routes, you know how intricate and fragile the web of phone calls and commitments really is.
If something needs to be done every day at a specific time, especially if it affects the health or safety of clientele, it ought to be re-examined as a volunteer role. Hire a few drivers for 3 hours a day and get those meals out. Teach these employees to be pleasant to the clients, but don’t confuse delivery with visiting. Then go ahead and strengthen a visiting program in which volunteers visit or call as often as possible.
We have too many sacred cow assignments in the volunteer world. Many people have seen the poster with the battleship slowly sinking in the distance while smiling stick figures say: ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely if ___________(fill in the blank with day care, literacy, crisis counseling) had all the money it needed, and the Navy had to have a bake sale to buy a battleship?” Lovely indeed. We fund what we value.
About ten years ago, Susan was interviewed by Working Woman magazine about volunteering. Just before the issue went to press, a “fact checker” telephoned to verify the quote that the reporter was using in the article. She asked: “Did you really say that in a tight economy nonprofits ought to hire more paid secretarial help and recruit volunteers to do things like public relations?”! At the risk of alienating all the p.r. folks she knew, Susan said yes.
She pointed out that no organization can survive without competent clerical staff. It’s these people who answer the phones, greet clients and visitors, maintain records, and generally stay put while the professional staff is in the field. Yet the lowest level of worker often gets cut from the budget the fastest. Now add to this the stereotype that most volunteers are only capable of doing clerical work and you get a bad situation. Rarely can an agency expect full clerical support 40 hours a week with volunteers, not to mention that this seriously underutilizes many potential volunteers. On the other hand, public relations, while undoubtedly important, does not have to be done every single day at a certain time. It doesn’t even have to be done on site. So recruiting a few skilled volunteers to tackle p.r. as a project (see the consultant model above) would absolutely make more sense.
We have spent our careers advocating for volunteers and we are not abandoning the cause now. Yes, some volunteers make a long-term commitment right away and others evolve a long-term commitment over time. Yes, we need to be more creative in how we design work and how we market our volunteer vacancies. Yes, some of the hardest roles still deserve volunteer attention.
But this call for reassessment of tradition is based on our willingness to face reality. What should our response be if we recognize:
- Most people seek short-term assignments.
- Many of the things we ask volunteers to do simply must be done by someone.
- We have relied on volunteers to do some extraordinary things.
- Some things deserve funding priority.
- It is possible to do all of volunteer management right and still end up with fewer volunteers than you need.
- Peter Drucker says: “There is nothing so foolish as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”