Volunteers can be beneficial to organizations and the communities they serve. Yet, it’s hard to prove.
Not that your team hasn’t tried.
The volunteer hours painstakingly collected. The calculations of a financial value for volunteer time. The articles promoting the health or employee engagement benefits of volunteerism. Data about volunteers donating more money than non-volunteers. All those beautiful statistics, cases, and reports that we have been told will generate support for volunteerism.
All the continued questions about and resistance to working with volunteers.
Why is this so hard?
The Value Proposition of Involving Volunteers
The research on value proposition offers some insight. The value proposition of a product (or service) is its promise to be delivered and its unique value-add when compared to a perceived substitute (Payne, Frow, & Eggert, 2017). Our subjective perceptions of a product’s quality influence our willingness to buy it (Zeithaml, 1988). In fact, our subjective experience can matter more in driving our behavior than so-called objective data do. What’s intriguing to me is how much we obsess over metrics and key performance indicators given how much sway our perceptions have.
What does this mean in real life? In practical terms, it helps explain why we will pay more for a cup of coffee at Starbucks when we could get a seemingly comparable and less expensive one somewhere else. The Starbucks coffee has a higher value proposition.
Which got me wondering: does volunteer engagement suffer from a low value proposition?
It sure seems possible. Especially when we consider the time commitment needed to engage volunteers well along with the perception by some that volunteers are more trouble than they are worth. Volunteers may not be perceived as able to deliver on a promise of high-quality or timely work. When it comes to getting work done, they may look like a poor substitute for a paid staff member. High time commitment plus low or inconsistent payoff doesn’t feel like a winning combination for most people, especially if they are already strapped for time. It might explain at least some of the hesitance and chronic underinvesting in service. If so, what do we do about it?
Telling the Truth
We might start by telling more of the truth about volunteerism. And the truth for some folks is that it hasn’t been good. I’ve heard all kinds of horror stories about service when I facilitate and teach. Maybe you have too. Perhaps you have one of your own.
Yet, there seems to be a collective unspoken agreement in the volunteer field to cast service only in positive terms. As if admitting that it doesn’t always go so well will scare folks off. I wonder how many people we scare off because the sunshine-and-rainbows approach does not reflect their experience. How many volunteers have had their time wasted? How many participants or clients have been treated poorly by well-intended volunteers? How many staff question whether we can offer meaningful volunteer engagement support to them if we aren’t willing to assess service honestly?
What if we made space instead for the good, bad, and ugly about volunteerism?
Meeting People Where They Are
One of the exercises I like to do with groups is to invite participants to talk about working with or serving as a volunteer. We get into all of it, from the transformational moments to the toxic behavior. Along the way, we talk about what kind of factors shaped these experiences. It doesn’t take long for themes to emerge about what a good and bad volunteer role entails – and how the group might cultivate better service in their own organizations.
It’s not magic, nor does it make everyone suddenly want to work with volunteers. That’s the point: it doesn’t make anyone do or believe anything different. We stop trying to convince and instead meet people where they are. We acknowledge that working with volunteers takes time – just like anything else that advances the mission or helps build a sense of community. We admit that there will be bumps in engaging volunteers – just like there are with paid staff. We accept that good intentions don’t automatically lead to positive outcomes. We recognize the challenges of engaging volunteers who are spread out and serve in small increments of time. Telling the full truth sends a message that we won’t minimize or dismiss bad experiences or default to volunteer cheerleading.
Enhancing the Value Proposition of Engaging Volunteers
Here are a few ideas about how we might honor the fuller truth about volunteerism and influence the value proposition of engaging volunteers:
- Be clear about the time commitment that engaging volunteers requires. It will, in fact, add work. Yet even though it is not necessarily efficient, when done well, it can be an incredibly effective way to involve the community in meeting our mission. Everything that advances the mission takes time; why would volunteer engagement be any different?
- Influence the factors that are in your control. There are some things you can’t control like volunteers whose schedules change or pandemics that close the office. There are plenty of others that you can such as: examining volunteer strategies for barriers to involvement, identifying meaningful volunteer roles, setting and discussing clear expectations, and equipping volunteers (and staff) to be successful.
- Give staff and volunteer leads a voice about volunteer engagement. When team leads don’t have the opportunity to meet prospective volunteers, approve their placement, and/or address poor behaviors, their hesitance to engage volunteers makes a lot more sense. Especially if they felt stuck with a volunteer who didn’t perform well in the past. Instead, we might reimagine the placement process as one of mutual negotiation and agreement between the Volunteer Director, team lead, and volunteer. This approach gives everyone an opportunity to opt in.
- Talk about accountability. An organization I worked with expected paid staff to engage volunteers in significant ways. They also held only the staff accountable for outcomes. It set up a situation where staff didn’t feel like they could delegate tasks or outcomes to volunteers. Discussing accountability and the levels of risk involved in various volunteer roles makes it possible for teams to work through these issues together. Team leads can bring fears and concerns as well as ideas for sharing accountability with volunteers in productive ways.
- Commit to the journey. In our desire for people to “get” volunteerism and to maximize our own time, we hope that one conversation or training will get them on board. The reality is that engaging volunteers is a process and one that requires ongoing learning and practice.
It can be challenging to acknowledge volunteerism’s warts, but it is an important step in our agencies and the broader field. Our efforts to provide “objective” data have proven insufficient for generating significant or consistent investment in volunteer engagement. Our inspirational service stories have not led to paid staff embracing volunteers deeply as partners in their work. Perhaps the concept of value proposition is the permission we need to try something new.
1Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing.
2 Graeber, D. & Wengrow, D. (2021). The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity.
3 Wall Kimmerer, R. (2015). Braiding Sweetgrass.
4 Knutsen, W. L. & Brower, R. S. (2010). Managing Expressive and Instrumental Accountabilities in Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations: A Qualitative Investigation.5 Carter Kahl, S. (2020). Can Volunteers Help Nonprofits Keep Their Community Roots Alive?6 Shaw, M. (2021). Smoke Hole: Looking to the Wild in the Time of the Spyglass.