Volunteers as a Means and an End: Beyond a Check-the-Box Mentality

Chalkboard with 4 vertical blank lines and 4 boxes. The third box is checked.

When I taught strategic volunteer engagement, students often described their agencies’ work with volunteers as an afterthought. Sure, they involved volunteers, but there wasn’t much intention or investment in the effort. It seemed that having some volunteers in some roles was somewhat good enough. As if volunteers were just one more box to check, an end unto itself.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, volunteers had limited roles and worth at these agencies. No one had done the work of identifying the purpose of involving volunteers. They had not completed the sentence: we engage volunteers so that

But Not Only a Means Either

Of course, framing volunteers as only a means can be problematic as well. It values them for their labor and productivity. It reinforces the purpose for involving volunteers (or their value proposition) as low-cost labor. From there, it’s not a far leap to talking about “using” volunteers to accomplish tasks. Being used and serving as cheap labor is rarely an inspiring reason to start volunteering. Nor does it make a particularly compelling case to paid staff that volunteers will be valuable partners.

Volunteers as a Means and an End

The reality (for most organizations) is that it is valuable to view volunteers as a means and an end—or perhaps an end and a means. Volunteers are an end for the volunteer department. They are a means for accomplishing the organization’s programs or operations.

In logic model terms, volunteers are an output of volunteer administration and an input of programs. As such, it makes sense to link volunteer contributions to program outputs or outcomes. With effective engagement (or throughput), volunteer time, expertise, and connections are transformed into something the agency is working to achieve.

Volunteers are a means and an end at a deeper level, too: when we remember that we need the community to be successful in our missions. Engaging volunteers provides the opportunity for the community to witness and be part of our causes in meaningful ways. Our agencies become a convening space for shared labor and talent and care, not just a site for parsing the complex work of community into tolerable and convenient units.

Agency leaders who view volunteers as a means and an end recognize the worth of involving volunteers. They know that engaging the community as partners means more than checking boxes. It means integrating volunteers into planning. It means investing time and space and expertise into volunteer engagement. As a result, their agencies are stronger, and volunteers have a sense of belonging. Making an impact: check.

Image credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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