The New Frontier For The Volunteer
Illustration ©LIFE+DOG by Amanda Olson
Whether we realize it or not, many of us are actively volunteering and advocating for causes every day. Some of us go to events, host fundraisers, participate in a walk or run while others make donations on line, forward information for awareness or simply “like” a page to show support of a cause or a group. Who doesn’t like to do things for others? From helping a neighbor, volunteering in the community or donating money or services, giving is one of the most rewarding things we can do to make a difference in our world. But it is increasingly harder to determine how to best allocate the time and resources we have, especially when it comes to going out and offering our services to those in need.
Social Media: Changing the Landscape of Volunteering
The landscape for volunteering and supporting a favorite charity has drastically changed, in part due to the increase in reliance upon social media. You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own desk to support a rescue group or advocate for an animal in need. You can “chip in” to help provide surgeries, food or training and you have the option of choosing what comes across your feed. You can join and leave any group or conversation, and you can choose what content you want to share with those closest to you. This, coupled with the aforementioned time constraints leads very few people to want or be able to make long-term commitments. This trend is not something to fight against; it is simply a new reality in our society.
Non-profits who continue to ask for long-term commitments of a few months, let alone a year, will continue to experience disappointment. The “good” of the cause or the quality of the program will not make a difference to most, unless the volunteer happens to have a pre-existing vested interest in the organization. There are many ways people can help in the short term and there are more opportunities for someone to shift between causes or commitments. Social media has also made it easy to oversaturate and overwhelm supporters. Just scroll through your feed and count how many times someone is asking you to vote for their dog or their organization. While I am totally guilty of this, I have tried to really focus on minimizing the amount of times I ask my personal friends to vote—not because I don’t think the contests are great, but because people get tired of it, especially for a contest that lasts several weeks or months. It should also be noted that, in this tiny way, many feel that they have supported the cause—virtually volunteering in their own way. Repeated pushes can make these ‘virtual volunteers’ feel that they are being bombarded and lead them to either hide the page or delete it altogether.
Virtual Volunteering: Streamlining Charitable Efforts
The internet has enabled society to take volunteering a step further by making it easy for someone to be a virtual or micro volunteer. Virtual volunteer opportunities can be completed from a remote location, virtually anywhere—usually with a computer, Internet connection, phone, and, if anyone is still using, a fax. Consequently, virtual opportunities do not require the volunteer to be physically present at a specific location. Virtual volunteering is a way to get involved, take action, and generally 'give back' online without some of the restrictions of other volunteering opportunities. While it’s not much different than in-person volunteering, the work takes place remotely–sort of like telecommuting to work. By becoming a virtual volunteer, you can get involved in a wide range of different activities at any time, from any place. Many people find it difficult to get to a charity or organization to help out in person, due to a wide array of reasons ranging from mobility issues to work or child care commitments. However, with virtual volunteering that is no longer a problem: virtual volunteering allows you to arrange to complete tasks at a time and place that suits you best, so you aren't excluded because you're unable to work on-site during office hours. By searching online databases, you can have your pick from an array of different opportunities, many of which allow you to choose how much time you feel you can commit. If this interests you, check out VolunteerMatch, the Web’s largest volunteer engagement network. The site boasts more than 80,000 participating nonprofits, 150 network partners and 8 million visitors each year, all with the goal of making it easier for individuals, nonprofits and companies to make a difference.
As if that wasn’t simple enough, there is also the trend of micro-volunteering, a form of virtual volunteering that requires even less of a time commitment and almost no interaction. It could be graphic design, writing, editing, or any service that can be done in smaller increments of time. It’s usually a one-time interaction, but can be a great way to take advantage of costly services and fulfill the philanthropic needs of busy talent.
Challenges of the Volunteer Community: Real Life Stories
While these newer ways of providing assistance are great, it is challenging many charities in a new way by making it increasingly harder to gain and retain actual bodies. For groups that need the physical presence of a volunteer, it is vital that everyone they interact with have a good experience. Growing a volunteer network will require much more work than ever before, and it will be much more challenging to locate those truly dedicated go-to people. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the beast, but in my experience, what ends up happening to many volunteers is that they become overwhelmed by the amount of requests and duties they are asked to do. They get tired of planning and implementing. Tired of being asked. Tired of dragging friends and family to every event.
Take Ron for example. He supported his local animal welfare charity and was always willing to help lend a hand when called upon. He came through time after time and quickly became the first person called upon—for anything. Not knowing how to say ‘no’ and being dedicated to helping the animals, he gathered his friends and contacts to always pull off the task he was recruited for. The problem was, after each request he found himself returning to the well too many times and depleting his human resources–including his own. He felt compelled to return each favor and in doing so, he created a cycle and lost all personal time. In return for what others did for him, he attended events, participated in fundraisers, donated goods and services and all of the other things he had others help him with—on top of still handling every request thrown his way by his favored philanthropy. He would have likely continued this pattern, putting his own life on hold, had a board member not asked him how he was going to “step it up” in the future. Suddenly he realized that everything he was doing was neither understood nor appreciated, and that it was time to find a new way to impact his community in a more effective (and less exhausting) way. While technically the group only lost one volunteer, in essence they lost a large network of supporters that they didn’t even realize existed.
Maybe you can relate more to Jen, a single gal living in Southern California who decided she wanted to adopt a dog that needed a home. She was particularly fond of active breeds and spent countless hours researching the types of breeds that would fit best in her active lifestyle. For several more months, Jen searched high and low for a rescue organization in her area that focused on her selected breed, a Springer Spaniel. After locating a rescue, she began to follow their Facebook page, sharing their requests for assistance and personally donating to help the group with intakes. She watched each day as new dogs were promoted and one day, across her feed, staring her in the eyes was the dog she had been searching for. She was so excited! This would not only help the dog find a great home and provide her a loyal companion, it would help the rescue group she had grown very fond of. She immediately started contacting the group to express her interest in adopting—and to let them know that she was available at any time to meet with them, their team and most of all, the dog. She waited patiently as the time passed and she received no response. She then tried calling the number on their website and left a message, followed by posting on the group’s Facebook wall to elicit a response. Nothing. Two days passed, and still no reply and no real way to get in contact with someone in the organization. That afternoon while pondering her next move, Jen saw the dog come across her feed again. Maybe they had just missed her messages? So she tried again. Still nothing. She gave up after 2 weeks and ended up visiting a shelter in her area where she met Duke, her doggie soul mate. One week after Duke moved in, the rescue group contacted Jen. They apologized for missing her messages and explained they were busy promoting the dogs and raising money to help the dogs in their group. It also turns out that the particular dog Jen was interested in was not even available for adoption—a volunteer adopted him on the spot the day he came in! They hoped they could still count on her support, and that she would be interested in another of their adoptable animals. Jen didn’t return the email. She simply “un-liked” their Facebook page, stopped forwarding their requests and ceased donating. She has since decided to support the shelter where she met Duke, and her latest four-legged kid Roxy.
Then there is Jack and Charlotte, a married couple in their mid-fifties that were invited to a small fundraiser at a friend’s house. They had no idea what the fundraiser was for prior to arriving, but knew that their friends always supported amazing causes—and threw even more amazing parties. When they entered the house, they were greeted from members of the organization. They were welcomed and encouraged to grab any of them if they had any questions or wanted to learn more about the group and what they did. Jack and Charlotte started mingling and talking amongst the guests they knew, and were pleasantly surprised by the friendly introductions of supporters of the cause. After listening to stories about the group, they realized that this charity hit really close to home for them. They had a son who was bullied in school, and they remembered too well the pain it caused him throughout his childhood. The group they were there to support rescued dogs from terrible situations and used the rescued and rehabilitated animals to visit children and share their inspirational anti-bullying message. The program targeted both kids in the school who were considered bullies and the ones that were receiving the abuse, helping one overcome their anger and the other overcome their fear and sadness. This is something they had wished was around when their son was going through school. They stayed for the remainder of the event, bidding on a few silent auction items and then said their goodbyes and went home. Later that night while lying in bed, they decided they wanted to contribute something to the group. The next day, they contacted the president of the board and set up a time to tour their facility and learn more about their work. With them, they carried a check for $50,000.
Non-Profit Organizations: The Importance of Customer Relationship Management
All of these stories are based on real experiences. Two of these nonprofits lost potential long-term supporters. The third gained two friends, their financial support, and great word-of-mouth endorsement, to name a few. The bottom line? You only have a limited amount of time to take advantage of each encounter, and it will be increasingly harder to please every volunteer. These days Customer Relationship Management should be just as crucial for nonprofit organizations as for any other type of business. It might be even more complex, because it is increasingly harder to identify a customer. Chances are that someone will be researching your organization through Facebook; maybe planning to donate a large gift; to volunteer or to utilize services. Even if your services are "free," don't doubt that the recipients of those services deserve and want good customer relations. The one customer you ignore could be a future friend or donor lost. With social media and our current reliance upon it, your customers are anywhere–and your volunteers should be one of your best customers.
Financial Hardship: How the Economy Has Impacted the Volunteer Community
I know it’s tough out there for the organizations as well. The current economic environment is not making it easy to bring on new or additional staff, and has made it even harder to find reliable volunteers. I have seen this firsthand from many nonprofit and volunteer-run organizations that I have worked with. I have been on both the volunteer and staff side, and understand all of the challenges of recruiting and retaining talented volunteers and supporters. In fact, this is why I am so passionate about helping: I understand both sides and always make sure to show my gratitude to the hard working, dedicated staff or organization leaders. That being said, I don’t understand how countless volunteers and advocates in the community still go unrecognized by these same groups and organizations. If people are not led to believe that their help is appreciated, then they are likely to move on to one of the many groups waiting in the wings, needing their help. These nonprofits rely heavily on a volunteer’s contacts, resources and, the most valuable and often abused asset, time. But luckily for groups that are able to take advantage of their services, more Americans seem to be opting to save their cash in this tight economy and as a result, rolling up their sleeves and donating some of that precious time and volunteering for causes they believe in.
To capitalize on this trend, nonprofits will need to increase their focus on creating programs and activities that target the modern volunteer. They will need to learn how to harness the power of social media to engage virtual volunteers and generate micro-volunteering opportunities, while not losing sight of the traditional volunteer or supporter that wants to attend events and social activities. It’s an added layer of outreach, but it is one that everyone is dealing with. If a nonprofit group or charity is not on Facebook and Twitter, they are way behind. Local groups in various markets regularly gain 10,000 followers and actively engage this following every day. It takes time to build—and even more time to truly engage the followers. Rather than look at this negatively, look at the opportunity: in one click, millions could have access to your message or a secret donor could appear.
Building for Success: How Strong Leadership Effects Volunteer Groups
Groups should also focus on building strong internal leadership if they hope to build and retain external support. Do the organization’s board members actually participate and recruit attendees to events? Do they personally donate money? Are they part of the monthly giving plan that is being heavily promoted? Do they identify new donors and open doors for staff members to meet new people interested in their mission? Fundraising and support should be "inside out." That is, the burden begins with the board, then the staff and then volunteers. Only when these supporters have put their money where their mouth is will other potential donors have the confidence to give to the organization.
So what are some easy ways for groups to make us pesky volunteers happy? Teach us. Anyone who is willing to volunteer for an organization is likely to have a desire and willingness to try new things. In fact, many volunteers get involved with causes so they can learn new skills or about topics and issues that are important to them. Provide that opportunity. Turning a volunteer job into a mini-educational experience will be highly valued by potential volunteers and will likely result in great word-of-mouth buzz for your group.
Take the time to train us. Even if the task assigned is a simple one, take the time to explain it, demonstrate it, and mentor the volunteer through the first few hours. Provide a buddy, i.e. another volunteer who is experienced, to help the new one. When training a group, be sure to use adult teaching techniques such as group involvement. We don't just want to be lectured to–we want to participate in the training. Include clear expectations of what you expect from volunteers. Let us know what the job entails and how you will evaluate our work.
Make it interesting. Most volunteers are willing to roll their sleeves up and get their hands dirty as long as it is meaningful. But grunt work is out. Do not use volunteers to do the tasks your staff doesn't want to do. When we volunteer for a cause, we want to impact that cause. We want assignments that appeal to 21st century volunteers. We all come with varying levels of experiences and expertise, and we know that our services are valuable. Really get to know those who are donating their time, and make sure that there is something for us to do.
Most of all, show the volunteer that you appreciate them. People want to allocate their time and energy to those that want it and need it the most. How will anyone know that an effort is valued and appreciated unless someone says thank you? I don’t mean to imply that everyone should go overboard or out of their way to make an overt gesture, a simple thank you—either via phone, email or even Facebook or Twitter is the least that anyone can do to show appreciation. It’s also the easiest way to ensure a continuous working relationship in the future because, in all reality, it is so hard to be a volunteer. Taking time away from family, work or other responsibilities can be taxing on even the most passionate participants, and it is vital that they are cultivated and properly thanked for all they do—no matter how big or small. We never know when we will need someone or something, and we should all strive to say the words “Thank You”, not just in these situations, but throughout our entire life and within our daily interactions. If someone is doing their part, whether at work or in the world, thank them.
Several Ways You Can Volunteer:
· Participate in a community-wide “day” (i.e., adoption day, clean up day, build day, etc.)
· Offer your professional services or consultation; for example—Accounting, Law, PR, Advertising, Lobbying, Graphic Design, Copywriting, Marketing, etc.
· “Like” and share pages on Facebook
· “Follow” groups and leaders on Twitter