The Case for New Volunteers

Mission Driven VolunteersThe case for new volunteers is really about devising a new driver.  It is to a lesser degree about a new direction.  The new driver is organizational mission and the new direction is relevancy, vibrancy and responsiveness for volunteers.  That’s no small matter.  In the United States over 64 million people volunteer every year.  While most of the effort is given over to religious organizations, social services and education, sports, the arts, health and civic efforts all garner a significant share of the almost eight billion hours volunteers give to their communities, clubs and professions.

If there’s a case for leading and influencing  the way volunteers engage with institutions, communities and civic organizations, a fascinating set of new ideas has emerged in a recently published research paper, The Mission Driven Volunteer written by two leading consultants in the non-profit sector, Peggy Hoffman, CAE and Elizabeth Weaver Engel, CAE.

I am often struck by the continuing theme in the not-for-profit community focused on how many things in the sector are “broken”.  Rarely can one open a magazine, peruse a blog or skim headlines without crossing into the death of strategic planning, withering business models, poorly designed tactics, out-of-touch volunteers, broken membership strategy, warped technology, or the failure of change management.  With so much wrong, it is surprising we get anything done at all.  Yet the non-profit sector contributes to society in ways even Alexis de Tocqueville never imagined.

The Mission Driven Volunteer is research worth pushing beyond the initial “broken” hyperbole to find the real gems and insights in this work.   If you’ve ever worked in the not-for-profit sector (as I have for some thirty plus years now) much of what you read will be familiar.  Depending on your experience with volunteers, it may also be a vibrant reminder of the frustration felt time to time in the work.  Engel and Hoffman’s research however goes well beyond simply naming the problem, or pointing out the myths and truths by offering a thoughtful and insightful pathway to fixing what’s gone wrong in the committee and volunteer space.

Historically, volunteerism has followed familiar pathway.  Organizations and institutions in need of volunteers largely defined the terms and conditions under which such effort could be contributed.  The design largely reflected the organization’s needs and only tangentially considered the needs of the volunteer.  If a volunteer couldn’t hack the schedule, responsibility or pace required they would likely be asked to step off or out.  In a time when volunteerism was a defining component of being a good neighbor or responsible citizen, rigidity in structure was the volunteer’s problem, not the institution.

The norms for committees and volunteers are changing before our very eyes according to Hoffman and Engel.  The research effectively illuminates the unique ways new generations of volunteers are rising up. “They seek different kinds of volunteer experiences than their predecessors…ones that are less about structure, position and prestige and are focused instead on independence, meaning, impact and getting it done.”  In the new world of committee and volunteer service, “well done is better than well said.”

Engel and Hoffman provide a persuasive argument for the shortcomings inherent in traditional committee process and decision-making structures.  As they rightly point out, “the traditional committee model is ill-suited to the rapid decision-making and experimentation required to craft innovative responses to new situations.”

To drive their point home, Hoffman and Engel provide committee and volunteer case studies drawn from the innovations and experiences of three differing organizations including the Maryland Association of CPAs; the National Fluid Power Association and the Oncology Nursing Society.  While it is difficult to fully capture the nuances of the “behind-the-scenes” effort essential to successfully transitioning the volunteer experience from the case studies, they do offer a window on the possibilities.

Redefining the committee experience brings with it the demand for greater management of the volunteer experience.  It is here, I find myself at odds with the authors and sympathizing with my brethren in the profession.  Far too many not-for-profit groups are already seriously bereft of essential operating and managerial resources.  The notion that the mission driven volunteer will also require a new mission driven volunteer management process could become a step too far and a non-starter for many not-for-profit organizations.   That would be disappointing for lots of reasons.

As leaders we are always interested in new ideas about pathways to improvement and sustainable models that will enhance the likelihood of success.  It is fair to say not-for-profit groups find themselves on a rapidly shifting “playing field” and the mantras about nimbleness and flexibility are no longer theoretical concepts, they are the reality of their work.

Volunteerism like membership is no longer about belonging, rather it is about believing. Peggy Hoffman and Elizabeth Walker Engel have vividly illuminated both new thinking and new models that will enrich and enlighten the coming work of redefining the committee and volunteer experience in the not-for-profit sector for some time to come.



2 thoughts on “The Case for New Volunteers”

  1. Thanks for the great review, Kerry. Yes, saying that the current model is “broken” is a little tough on associations, but Peggy and I do genuinely believe that to be the case, for reasons of (as you articulated) generational difference, decision making processes, and opportunities for involvement. I’m very sympathetic to the “so how do we actually DO this?” question. I’d be a bad consultant if I failed to mention: you can hire us to help you! But I think it would also benefit associations who are considering trying to switch to a more mission-driven ad hoc style to talk to the associations featured as case studies (NFPA, ONS, and MACPA) and to start with small experiments – like maybe one small project.

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