Taking Sides in the Volunteerism Debate

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Ok, it's time. It's time to talk about volunteering.

For those of you who know Vantage Point well, you know that we've been students of volunteerism and the voluntary sector for more than 60 years. And in that time, we've dramatically changed the way we look at volunteer engagement.

Specifically, we've changed the way we approach inspiring volunteer engagement. We start with the organizations and not the volunteers. Think of this as supply and demand. If volunteers are the supply, many, including President Obama, seem to think we're lacking. "There aren't enough people volunteering" = "there aren't enough volunteers". Vantage Point sits firmly on the other side - that the problem is demand. "There aren't enough people volunteering" = "there aren't enough organizations offering volunteer roles that interest today's volunteer".

taking sides with words

Lately there has been a lot of discussion on volunteering. Our friends at the Information and Volunteer Centre for Strathcona County talk about episodic volunteering in a recent blog. Aaron Hurst of Taproot fame talks about defining the different ways in which organizations engage volunteers. (By the way, Aaron, we would love it if you would stop "using" volunteers?! How about "working with" them or "involving" or "engaging" them. They're not cart horses!). And a recent debate in major media (CNN, New York Times and the Chronicle of Philanthropy) has erupted over the innovative idea of micro volunteering and whether it's a good or bad thing.

I caught up on my blog reading today and found myself submitting several comments - typing feverishly as I did so. So many great ideas and EVEN BETTER, so much attention on volunteerism right now! Hooray! But then I got a bit miffed. This conversation is happening at such an academic level. And I'm just as guilty of it. But the reality is that until we figure out a way to make increased volunteer engagement at the small not-for-profit organization easier - I am just not sure things are going to change.

And so I'd like to propose my own Pay it Forward-esque action item to you. Go to the first nonprofit in your community that pops into your head. Ask them how they currently involve volunteers. My guess is that more often than not, you'll get answers like board members, advisory committee, fundraising, serving meals, filing, data entry, etc. Now ask them how long they've been creating this type of volunteer work at their organization. If the answer is "forever" or "as long as I've worked here" or anything in that genre, ask them this next: Would you be willing to sit down over coffee and brainstorm two new ways to involve volunteers at your organization? Just two.

Let's go for baby steps here. If every one of 160,000 not-for-profits in Canada or the 1.3 million in the US only engaged 2 more volunteers - count them, one and then two - well, I think we've done more for volunteerism than has been done as long as I've been alive (you get to guess that). If my math is right, that's a BOATLOAD more volunteers than are currently engaged today - even if half of those engaged are already volunteering elsewhere.

So if you're reading this, approach an organization and ask if they'll take the time to engage two more unpaid people. And that's in a different way than they've engaged volunteers in the past. Big Brothers recruiting two more Bigs doesn't count. Let's see what we can actually get done while the academics and the theorists ponder these issues for the next five years.

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