Gathering Volunteers – On Purpose

By Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

A little more than a year ago, many nonprofit agencies told their volunteers to stay home. This unthinkable action became reality almost overnight. Now, as we slowly emerge from a world turned upside down, nonprofit leaders are planning for what happens next and reimagining their volunteer strategies.

One colleague in the throes of these decisions is a Volunteer Coordinator at a youth literacy nonprofit. In the Before Times, the agency’s reading and tutoring programs took place in person and in the afternoon. Most of the volunteers were white women; many were retired teachers or librarians. Once the pandemic set in, the organization moved its programs online and adjusted the hours. Many of the usual volunteers stepped back from serving for a time, while a new corps of volunteers stepped up that was younger and included more people of color and a variety of professional backgrounds. As the organization transitions its programs beyond pandemic restrictions, my colleague and other leaders in the agency are considering how to engage the current and former volunteers in meaningful and flexible ways that span remote and in-person spaces.

So it was with great interest that I listened to recent podcasts (here and here) with Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering. Ms. Parker is a facilitator who describes her work as “helping people create collective meaning in modern life, one gathering at a time.” She sees the pandemic as a once-in-a-generation chance to re-think how we gather. She views the ongoing racial reckoning as an invitation to question “who and what we are centering” in our organizations. She hopes we don’t slip into autopilot when it comes to planning meetings and events.

Her insightful questions and guidance have valuable application in volunteerism as organizations consider how to bring volunteers back in person. How can we be more intentional when we gather community volunteers to help advance our mission?

Gathering with Purpose

One of Ms. Parker’s guiding principles is being clear about the purpose of gathering. In her short guide, The New Rules of Gathering, she notes our tendency to conflate a gathering’s category (e.g., birthday or baby shower) with its purpose. Doing so can have negative consequences. “When we don’t examine the deeper assumptions behind why we gather, we end up replicating the same old party formats” (p. 5).

Or the same old volunteer project formats: sign in, orientation, project tasks, and a quick note of thanks.

Her work is a reminder and invitation to pause to reflect on what our purposes and assumptions for engaging volunteers are. For most projects, the most obvious purpose is to accomplish some task like reading to kids, planting trees, or packing food boxes. But reducing service to completing tasks misses the bigger picture. Agency have a host of volunteer project purposes: building awareness for the organization, educating the community about the cause and audience served, giving community members a role in the mission, cultivating relationships that support the organization in diverse ways.

A less-common, but valuable, purpose for gathering the community through a volunteer project can be to challenge assumptions. That can feel like a tricky proposition when we have been tacitly trained to make volunteering fun and easy, to celebrate volunteers as heroes for giving two hours of their day at a one-time project. We have worked so hard to make service a feel-good event driven by volunteer desires that we sometimes forego the needs of the people we are supposed to be serving. Yet, volunteering is a unique space that brings people together outside of our usual bubbles and echo chambers. We have an opportunity to deepen these spaces into ones that foster dialogue, even when it is uncomfortable.  

Knowing the purposes for gathering volunteers helps shape the agenda. For example, a Volunteer Director surveyed volunteers to find out why they served with the organization. Many responded that it was to get to know other people in the community. As a result, his team adjusted volunteer projects to start with volunteer introductions as well as an agency orientation so the volunteers get to know each other and the organization. Doing so means they complete a task and build community at the same time.

From Recruitment to Invitation

Ms. Parker also offers a fresh way of thinking about how we bring volunteers into our organizations. Instead of recruiting messages that emphasize logistics, she suggests we tell a story about the purpose of the gathering and why the guest is an important part of it.

This strikes me as a juicy and generative way to reframe volunteer recruitment. Once we are clear about volunteer project purposes, we have the material for telling a story about what the agency is doing and who we hope will join. This is the place where we can signal that we are looking for people who want to find a sense of community and belonging. Or those who want to learn more about community issues and engage in meaningful, if sometimes tough, dialogue. This is the place where we use language and image intentionally, moving away from those that position the volunteer as hero or savior, perhaps replacing it with neighbor or fellow community member.

This shift offers intriguing implications. How would we design the volunteer webpage or re-write volunteer position descriptions and postings if we were telling a story? How does framing service as an invitation support us in cultivating volunteer experiences that are relational rather than transactional?

Thoughtful Beginnings, Intentional Endings

Another way to refresh gatherings is to craft project beginnings and endings that help reinforce purpose. The way we welcome volunteers to a project helps set the tone for the rest of the event. It is an opportunity to clearly share the project and organization purpose. On the flip side, our endings help us process what just happened in community.

We might take a lesson from service learning and its emphasis on reflection. This meaning making is good for more than youth and students. It helps adults consider their purpose for volunteering and how service fits in their lives.

Adding a project debrief or reflection is one of the areas that I hear leaders of volunteer feel pressured to skip. They are concerned that the volunteers do not want it or that there is not time for a debrief. Yet, many have not tried it. It is a worthwhile investment though, especially if you prepare volunteers to expect it in the invitation and at the project beginning. Experiment with different formats and questions to see which ones work best. Done well, these reflections can be a powerful way to make meaning of the volunteer experience and help lay the groundwork for action beyond the project, including coming back to serve again.

What Else?

Ms. Parker’s work offers rich questions to reflect on the potential of our in-person and virtual spaces moving forward. I am still on the front end of this thinking but am intrigued by its many implications for volunteerism. This blog focuses on one-time projects, but there are important applications to long-term service and committee work too. Here are a few questions that I am holding:

  • What are we trying to achieve when we bring the community together as volunteers?
  • What forms of gathering has volunteering taken in the past? How did it change during the pandemic?
  • What assumptions are built into those forms?
  • Who do these forms serve? Who should they serve?
  • Which forms do we want to keep? Which forms can we let go?
  • What and who do we need to gather as we transition into new ways of operating? How are we making space for volunteers in these conversations?

What questions and answers are emerging for you? Share them in the comments.

In Gratitude

With thanks to Priya Parker for her work and research on gathering and Brene Brown for the podcasts that introduced me to it. The ideas for this blog came from the two-part Dare to Lead podcasts (May 17 and May 24) where Priya Parker was the guest and her free online guide called The New Rules of Gathering. Next on my reading list is her book, The Art of Gathering.

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, May 17). Brené with Priya Parker on How We Return and Why It Matters, Part 1 of 2. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, May 24). Brené with Priya Parker: A Meeting Makeover. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

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