Paying Volunteers – Experience

This is a third blog in a series on ‘Paying Your Volunteers Well‘. All of the blogs in the series have been on the theme that organizations pay their volunteers via three ‘currencies’:

  • Currency 1, Purpose: being part of something that is bigger than any one person.
  • Currency 2, Affiliation: the feeling of community and the creation of social bonds.
  • Currency 3, Experience: (this blog) gaining experience or practicing skills from being a volunteer.

The previous blog focused on the first two currencies: Purpose and Affiliation. This final blog will look at the concept of experience (individual and organizational experience) as a currency and some thoughts on how volunteer organizations can implement the three currencies. Finally, this series is a companion to a previous blog entitled “Knowers, Doers and Funders in Volunteer Boards”.

Paying your Volunteers with Personal Experience

Looking back over the past 5 years, I am a bit amazed at the experiences I have gained as a volunteer. For example, I have learned desk top publishing, a bit of .NET programming and how to manage websites. As well, I have strengthened my facilitation and project management skills – all within a volunteer context. This is partly because I have a personal philosophy to “never volunteer for activities that are like my current job“.

I have cultivated this philosophy on volunteering since my early teens. That in its self is typical according to a 2000 Statistics Canada study [1]. One of the ‘sells’ for many youth programs; e.g. organized sports, scouting or cadets; are that kids learn leadership, organizational skills and team work. These learnings are in addition to the skills relating to the organization (e.g. stopping goals, lighting campfires or flying airplanes). While youth volunteer organizations do this through a program structure (e.g. coaches or a badge/promotion programs); the concept of experience as a currency is not just for kids.

A highly effective volunteer organization will ask their adult volunteer, ‘What do you want to learn/experience as a volunteer?’ For some individuals, the answer may be ‘I am happy to simply help out’. For others, they may be more strategic is using volunteering as a learning opportunity. According to a 2010 Study by Statistics Canada,78% of respondents want to use their skills and experience. A majority of respondents indicated that they acquired skills through volunteering (see quote and graphic below):

About two-thirds of volunteers benefit from improved interpersonal skills. Although most volunteers get involved with a charitable or nonprofit organization for altruistic reasons, most also believe that they receive substantial benefits themselves. Many stated that their volunteer activities had given them a chance to develop new skills…”

Skills acquired through volunteering – 2010 Stats Can Report: no. 11-008-X

Skills acquired through volunteering – 2010 Stats Can Report: no. 11-008-X

The Volunteer Experience

Schools currently do a good job of matching volunteer experiences to learning through work experience programs or (unpaid) internships. I would suggest that employers can learn from this model. That is, employers could support staff members who are both volunteering and learning with a community organization. For example, a person who wishes to learn project management can hone these skills in a lower risk volunteer/community organizations setting (e.g. organizing a United Way campaign, building a playground, etc.). This scenario is win-win-win; the volunteer organization receives work in kind; the individual has the altruistic opportunity and is learning/improving their skills and the employer has pseudo on the job training while demonstrating community support.

There is a caution here because altruism is a funny thing. Consider the economics of voluntary blood donations versus being paid to donate. An economic tipping point is crossed when an individual believes that they are being compensated for what was previously an altruistic activity. Curiously compensation generally dissuades individuals from donating money, time or blood. The participants in this win-win-win situation need to ensure that the relationship remains noble and altruistic.

The Volunteer Experience

Returning to the Stats Canada study, a couple of interesting statistics jump out: ‘45% of non – volunteers had not become involved because no one had asked them to, which suggests they might sign up to volunteer if they were approached the right way. On the other hand, about one-quarter (27%) had no interest in volunteering and 7% had not been satisfied with an earlier experience‘.

I find the final value, 7% having a bad experience, to be surprising low!  I have been part of volunteer organizations that have treated their volunteer-cadre poorly.  This treatment included indifference, cliques, poor organization, political games or simply taking their volunteers for granted.  To avoid a terrible experience, think of volunteers as a precious resource that needs to be managed via lifecycle approach:

 

Lifecycle State Description Organization Activities
Unaware The individual is unaware of the organization or the volunteer opportunities available. General promotion, alumni/ambassador networking.
Aware, uninvolved The individual is aware, but is not involved as a volunteer.  Interest in being a volunteer is not known to the organization. General promotion, creation of prospect lists, creating volunteer ‘buddies’.
Peripherally involved The individual has volunteered informally or has expressed an interested in being involved. Add the individual to a volunteer-prospect list and describe the volunteer ‘value proposition’ to him/her; use a low-pressure follow up.
Non-stalwart involvement Individual is a regular volunteer but is not a stalwart [2] of the organization. Ongoing volunteer-experience reviews, ask the individual to be a “volunteer buddy”, solicit feedback and implement quality/experience improvements.
Stalwart These are the 10% of the individuals who contribute 50%+ of the volunteer effort. Ibid. to non-stalwarts plus, develop mentorship and succession plans; ongoing touch points to identify burn out early; provide sabbaticals, breaks and change of duties; ask stalwarts to organize or move to the alumni and ambassador programs.
Alumni Former volunteers willing and able to ‘tell’ the organization story in informal settings. Maintain a current roster of alumni/ambassadors, keep them informed of organization activities, and ask for both ongoing donations but also network/community engagement.
Ambassadors Individuals who have formally agreed to promote the organization within the community. Ibid. to alumni plus, provide a higher level of engagement than that provided to alumni.

A Brief Description of the Lifecycle Activities

If you are on a board of a small volunteer organization and the above activities seem daunting, do not despair.  Implementing any one of the activities can help; implementing all, can help more.  Being able to implement all of the activities is unlikely except for the largest volunteer organizations.

General promotion: normal organizational advertising/promotional activities to improve brand recognition, organizational awareness or donation solicitation.

Alumni Networking: An informal to formal program in which former volunteers and staff members are periodically made aware of the organization, its current activities/accomplishments, needs and interest in having past volunteers/staff members return to or make donations to the organization.

Ambassador Networking: A formal program in which an individual agrees to ‘tell’ the organizational story within a community so as to achieve specific organizational objectives.  The development of the ambassador program should following the Know/Do/Fund model.

Creation of prospect lists: Within the confines of privacy legislation and organizational privacy policies; the collection and management of potential individuals interested in the objectives of the organization.  Existing donor software supports this activity although the information should also be organized along the Know/Do/Fund model and managed like a sales-call list.

Volunteer ‘buddies’: A formal or semi-formal program in which current/alumni/ambassador volunteers are encouraged to partner with potential/existing volunteers/donors, etc.  Through relationship management, the organization ‘story’ including the ‘value-proposition’ of being a volunteer.

Volunteer ‘value proposition’: Why should a person volunteer for this organization versus another.  This should include a description of the overall objectives of the organization, its recent achievements, history, affiliation, volunteer testimonials and individual opportunities.

Low-pressure follow up: Based on the prospect list and using the value proposition, the buddy or volunteer recruiter follows up within prospective individuals.  This is done in a low-pressure manner and interactions are documented (with the consent of all individuals involved).

Ongoing volunteer-experience reviews: A formal or semi-formal program in which the value-proposition reality is measured against what is/was promised.  Advice collected is acted upon through a quality/experience improvement program.

Mentorship and succession plans:  all volunteers and their positions have a succession/training plan which includes a risk analysis for key/technical positions.  Long serving volunteers who are feeling burned out may be offered sabbaticals, breaks and change of duties to encourage ongoing participation.  Recruitment to the alumni and ambassador programs is encouraged.

Competition in Altruism

There is both good and bad news for volunteer organizations.  Firstly the bad news, a poor volunteer experience generally can be traced to the culture of the volunteer organization.  The stalwarts of the organization may see little reason to manage the ‘volunteer-experience’.  After all, they have been ‘holding the fort’ for so long it is time for somebody else to do!  It is easy for volunteer organizations to develop an insular or group-think view-point.

The good news is that organizational culture can be fixed, evolved and changed.  There are excellent opportunities for volunteer organizations that are willing to have open conversations about their culture and volunteer management strategies.  The better news is that an organization who engages in these conversations can best compete for altruism.

The 2010 Stats Canada study found an interesting trend.  While the number of individuals who volunteer is increasing, the TOTAL HOURS volunteered has plateaued.  Individuals have fewer hours available to volunteer and the stalwarts have taken up the slack.  Two job families, Go-Go parenting, technology and an erosion of social structures has made our lives more frantic but we are still willing to volunteer.  This is a double edge sword for volunteer organizations.  On the one hand volunteers will become harder to find, more expensive to recruit, harder to retain and cost more to manage.  On the other hand, organizations who understand how to pay their volunteers well will out-compete other organizations for the precious volunteer hour.

This is the end of this three blog series and the thoughts contained within are based on 35+ years being involved with volunteer organizations.  Now that I have articulated what I have felt, I hope to use these blogs to make the organizations I am passionate about better.  While competing for volunteers may seem mercenary, it is also the reality facing the causes that we care about.  In addition, volunteer organizations may be asked to carry more of the burden within our society as governments grapple with debt and budget concerns.  So, when you think about the volunteer organization that you are passionate about, how well equipped is it to pay its volunteers?

[1] Jones, F. 2000. “Community involvement: the influence of early experience.” Canadian Social Trends. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11-008. No. 57.

[2] A compilation of both the aforementioned 2010 Stats Canada study as well as ‘Understanding Canadian volunteers : using the National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating to build your volunteer program’, available: http://sectorsource.ca/resource/book/understanding-canadian-volunteers-using-national-survey-giving-volunteering-and