Making a case for selfish volunteers

Benefit of selfish volunteers

When you recruit for your organization, do you avoid selfish volunteers? Should you?

Can self-interest drive positive change? I’d like to challenge you to start looking at how people with “personal agendas” can actually help make an impact in our communities.

Confession time. I have to admit there have been a few times when I volunteered for purely selfish reasons. The first time, I volunteered to serve on a board of directors it was because I thought the experience would help me gain an elected position (I still didn’t win). Then there was the time I volunteered so I could get close to a guy I liked. That didn’t work out, either.

What’s interesting is I continued volunteering for those organizations long after the reasons I originally started were no longer valid, which just means we need to shift our perspective.

Volunteering tends to be associated with acts of pure altruism. While selflessness is undoubtedly admirable, it's essential to recognize that self-interest can coexist alongside acts of service. When people engage in volunteer activities driven by self-interest, they often bring a dedication, focus and drive that they might not otherwise have offered, resulting in a more committed and impactful contribution.

Ann is a good example. She was a lawyer who wanted to become a partner in her firm. It was a big practice and there wasn’t much to help her stand out from the crowd. She started doing pro bono work for a charity in her city that the founding partner of the firm supported. She gained experience in aspects of her field of law that had rarely crossed her desk in her paid work, and she came to be seen as an expert in those areas. Ann ended up catching the eye of the founder and she was eventually made a partner. She still volunteers at that charity because, she says “It’s not often I can advance my career and feel good about it.”

That commitment is a key benefit of having selfish volunteers.

Volunteers who find their needs and desires met while volunteering are more likely to sustain their involvement over the long term. So long as they are making progress toward their goals, they will be motivated to continue pushing toward the organization’s goals. Even when they’re faced with setbacks or challenges, they will have concrete reasons to persevere.

Mahmoud started working at a local food bank shortly after he immigrated to Canada. He was a chef in his country of origin, but hadn’t been able to find work since he’d arrived. The concept of volunteering was fairly new to him. He worried about his poor language skills, and he was hesitant to “waste his time working for nothing”. But once his sponsor listed the benefits he could gain (local experience, networking, language practice, etc), he tried it.

Over the next few months he gained a thorough understanding of Canadian food safety practices, a greater fluency in English and lots and lots of new friends. At the end of three months, one of those friends recommended him to a local high-end restaurant, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, more than 10 years later, he not only still works at the food bank himself, he encourages all new immigrants he meets to volunteer there, too.

And that’s not the only ripple effect.

There are a number of stereotypes about volunteers and volunteering that prevent some people from stepping forward. There are a lot of people who feel that they “should” volunteer, that it’s all about giving back and sacrificing their time for others. And people don’t really want to do what they’re “supposed to do”.

So, what if we could change their perceptions, and have them see the benefit to themselves in volunteering? If people could see others volunteering for selfish reasons, and being appreciated and even celebrated for doing so, wouldn’t that be a better way to get them to try it for themselves? Selfish volunteers are walking billboards for the positive personal results to be gained. I think we actually do our organizations a disservice when we perpetuate the view of volunteering as a purely altruistic activity.

Volunteer engagement that’s driven purely by self-interest shouldn’t be undervalued. Ultimately, when someone’s personal interest aligns with the needs of society, the result benefits everyone. And there’s always the chance that, like me, the people who volunteer for selfish reasons will stick around even after those reasons are past.

So let’s embrace our selfish volunteers. They can be a powerful force for good.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


The art of getting club members to volunteer

Finding volunteers within

Does your group have challenges getting club members to volunteer? How about the parents of members?

I spoke with the leaders of a wholly volunteer-run sports club recently. They have a good number of members who come and play, but are often challenged to find volunteers to do the various tasks that keep the club running. It’s a common problem.

It’s great to join clubs that have no paid staff because it keeps the dues down. The flip side of the coin, though, is rather than spending money, you have to spend your time. Clubs don’t run themselves. Somebody has to do the work. All too often, the bulk of that work lands on the shoulders of a few and they get burnt out.

Many times I’ve heard people complain a club they belonged to closed, even though lots of people were attending, because the organizer quit. And that, unfortunately, is what happens when members or their parents don’t volunteer to share to workload.

So what can you do to get club members to volunteer?

Start by stating expectations—Right from the beginning, state on the membership application form that members are expected to volunteer a certain number of hours every season. Explain the club only exists because people are willing to help out, and that every effort will be made to fit the volunteer time into their schedule. I’ve even heard that some clubs actually assign a dollar amount to each hour, and the member is expected to pay in cash for the time they did not volunteer. That won’t be appropriate for every group, but if the expectation that everyone volunteers is clear from the beginning, you will have fewer problems.

Make it easy for them—As much as possible, offer flexibility. Different people have different schedules, and not everyone is able to volunteer at the time most convenient for you. What tasks can members do that don’t require your attendance? Is there anything that they can do from home? Any tasks that only take a short period of time? Remember, too, that some people don’t have access to a vehicle, or may not have the financial wherewithal to volunteer for things that require out-of-pocket expenses. Offer your members a range of tasks so they can sign up for those that fit their situations.

Make it public—It may feel a bit manipulative, but let’s face it, we do more when people are watching. As Erez Yoeli said in his TED talk, How to motivate people to do good for others, “We know that people care deeply about what others think of them. That we try to be seen as generous and kind, and we try to avoid being seen as selfish, or a mooch.” Therefore, if someone has the opportunity to both volunteer for the club and have that volunteering seen by others, they are more likely to sign up. The reverse is also true; it can be embarrassing – even shameful—to be one of the few who’s name isn’t on the signup sheet. So put the list of available tasks up where everyone can see who has signed up for what – and who hasn’t.

Eliminate excuses—Don’t deny I, we all do it. We find excuses to avoid things we don’t want to do, even when we know we should. How many times have you told yourself that you don’t have time this morning to go to the gym, or that you’re out of floss for your teeth. Excuses. The same is true for volunteering. If you want to get club members to volunteer, you have to eliminate any excuses they may find. Even simple things like making sure there’s a pen attached to the signup sheet – and that it works. I’ve already mentioned building flexibility into the tasks to make it easier. What other excuses might your members come up with, and how can you eliminate them?

Finally, acknowledge and appreciate those members who do volunteer—My appreciation mantra is “every volunteer, every shift”. Make a point of thanking every volunteer every time they help out. Whenever possible, be specific about what you’re thanking them for. A general “Thanks for helping out today” is fine, but if you can say something like “Thanks for organizing the games cabinet, it will make it so much easier to find things now”, it shows that you really noticed their contribution and saw the value in it. Up the ante, too, by acknowledging members’ involvement in a public way. You can comment on it during a meeting, or even post about it on social media (with their permission). Even though the members know that what they’re doing benefits themselves as well as everyone else, it never hurts to have someone acknowledge it.

Getting club members to volunteer can be a challenge. Members do, however, want the club to be successful. You can get them involved by setting clear expectations right from the beginning, making it easy for them to volunteer (and embarrassing not to) and by being diligent in showing your appreciation. Good luck.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Include volunteer professionals on your board

Volunteer board members

Do you have any volunteer professionals on your board of directors?

I saw a question on LinkedIn the other day by Tracey O’Neill regarding why the boards of volunteer engaging organizations don’t recruit volunteer professionals. It really got me thinking.

Volunteers make up by far the largest portion of most organizations’ workforce. They are also usually the ones who have the greatest impact on the mission. You would think that having a volunteer engagement professional on the board would be a priority.

Yet it’s not. In fact, it’s rare indeed that a board includes someone who understands volunteer engagement. And that person was usually brought on because of other skills. I know, that’s how I ended up on the boards I serve on.

Why would that be? The most likely reason is a simple lack of awareness.

While most boards of directors are aware that volunteers are valuable, few understand that there is a specific field of study around engaging them. Fewer still are aware that there are credentialed professionals in that field that they could recruit.

Even if they are aware of the profession, many don’t see it as valuable. A board, focused on fiscal responsibility and high level governance, may not fully appreciate how properly supporting and leveraging the skills of volunteers contributes to the success of the organization. Or it may not realize how challenging it is to engage them effectively. Many people still see volunteer engagement as an entry-level role, rather than the high-level leadership position that it is.

Yet the benefits of having a volunteer specialist on a board of directors are huge. Here are the top three:

1. Improved organizational outcomes

Volunteer professionals can help the board design policies and processes that strengthen the volunteer program. And the volunteer program, as mentioned before, impacts the mission more than anything else.

2. Better board engagement

Board members are volunteers themselves. Thus, having someone on your board who understands how to support, encourage and motivate volunteers can lead to improved recruitment, retention and attendance rates on the board. And that can only lead to good things for everyone.

3. Organizational sustainability

Most organizations around the world are struggling with higher demand and fewer volunteers. Having a volunteer professional on your board of directors can improve recruitment and retention of volunteers throughout the organization. By helping to shift the board’s focus toward the volunteer program, they can improve the sustainability of the entire organization.

This is all stuff you probably already know. What may not be so obvious is what to do about it.

Start with changing your board of directors' perception

When you talk with directors or trustees, use words about yourself, your role in the organization, and the profession as a whole that highlight the value. Refer to yourself as a leader. Associate leading volunteers with managing human resources. Talk about engaging volunteers as an accredited profession. Refer to people in similar roles in other organizations as colleagues. Mention conferences or associations that focus on the profession. If you see and refer to yourself as a valuable professional, those around you will start seeing you in that light – and that includes the board.

Advocate for your program

As all leaders do, stand up for your program. Ask to speak with the board of directors about the volunteer program’s needs, and use the opportunity to highlight its benefits. Just as managers fight to get funding or budget space for their departments, you need to do the same for yours. Hmmm, maybe referring to the “volunteer department” rather than “volunteer program” will emphasize its value. Either way, by presenting to the board you and your professional colleagues will start being seen as a leaders. As key drivers of the organization rather than just minor cog wheels.

Get on a board

Even though your organization may not (currently) specifically recruit for volunteer professionals on your board, most boards are under strength and would be very welcoming to anyone willing to serve. Obviously, because of conflict of interest issues, you won’t be able to serve on the board of the organization you work for.

You can, however, serve on another one that matches your values and your interests. In fact, consider buddying up. Apply to serve on the board of directors of a colleague’s organization, and have them apply to serve on yours.

Until we have a seat at the board table – and make our voices heard at that table – volunteer engagement professionals, and the impact of the volunteers themselves, will continue to be undervalued.

Take your seat at the table. Let me know if you need help.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


How to handle volunteers walking away

When volunteers quit

One of the most frustrating roles of a leader of volunteers is when volunteers quit.

You’ve put time and effort into training and supervising them and then – poof—they’re gone.

You’re left wondering why, and if there was anything you could have done to have kept them.

There are many reasons why volunteers quit, and not all of them have to do with the leadership or the organization. A volunteer might be moving to a new city. Their school work or career work may have increased. They could have health issues. Many times, though, when volunteers quit it’s because of something the organization, or its leaders, did or didn’t do.

Once, I volunteered for an art gallery in the city where I lived at the time. I filled out the application form, was interviewed and went through an orientation. Then I showed up for my first shift, only to be met with a blank stare from the person I was supposed to report to. She had no idea I was coming, and didn’t have a clue what to do with me.

I explained what I was brought on to help with but she didn’t have anything ready. She ended up giving me some “busy work” to get me through the shift. No problem, I thought. There was just a miscommunication somewhere and the next shift will be better. Only it wasn’t.

I got the same blank stare, and did the same “busy work.” When I showed up for my third shift, a look of annoyance crossed her face when she saw me. So I turned and walked out. I never went back.

A surprising number of people have similar experiences. This person filled out an application and never heard back. That person organized a massive awareness campaign and never got thanked. A third person was so overloaded with tasks they burned out. There was little or no training, so a volunteer doesn’t feel competent or confident in their work. Some are only asked to do low-level, brainless tasks. Shifts get cancelled without volunteers being informed. And on and on.

There are many reasons why a volunteer, or potential volunteer, will walk away and you need to know what those reasons are.

People make mistakes. Stuff falls through the cracks. But without knowing why a volunteer leaves, you will never know where those cracks are. Your recruitment efforts will be like trying to fill a bathtub when the plug is missing.

Another thing about my art gallery experience was the no one ever followed up.

Don’t make that mistake. Once a volunteer is on your roster, even if only for a shift or two, when they stop showing up, reach out to them.

Not all volunteers will tell you they’re leaving. Most, in fact, will simply disappear – especially if they’re leaving because of how the organization is run. Holding an exit interview is imperative.

An exit interview is your opportunity to see the organization and the volunteer program from the volunteer’s point of view. We all are limited in our perspectives, so something we think is working well may be broken from the point of view of a volunteer. A well-conducted exit interview can identify those things.

Here are some tips:

Start with sincerely thanking the volunteer for their time and dedication.

Show empathy and support for their decision. Now is not the time to try to guilt or pressure them into staying. In fact, it is never time to guilt or pressure a volunteer. If you find you’re doing that, you may just have discovered the reason they’re quitting.

Provide an environment where the volunteer feels safe.

Explain the purpose of the interview – to make things better for everyone. Don’t become defensive at any comments the volunteer makes, even if criticism is directed at you. Simply thank them for their honesty. By remaining calm and open, you defuse any latent hostility and increase the volunteer’s sense of safety.

While I strongly suggest you do the interview in person or by video, there may be situations where having an anonymous online survey will be more likely to provide honest answers.

A live interview allows you to adjust the questions based on previous answers, but – especially if there was conflict between yourself and the volunteer – the volunteer may feel safer answering questions without you there.

Ask open-ended questions that allow the volunteer to express their thoughts and feelings freely.

Here are some sample questions, but you will likely need to tailor your questions to each specific situation.

• What prompted you to leave the organization?

• What support and/or resources could we provide to make the tasks easier?

• In what ways could the organization have utilized your skills or abilities better?

• Please describe any incident that made you uncomfortable / unwelcome.

• How could we improve our orientation / training / onboarding?

• Do you have any other suggestions to help us improve?

Asking for suggestions for improvement is important because volunteers see tasks differently than you and they may have very valuable ideas about how to make things more efficient. Be open to that.

Once the interview is over, take a hard look at the answers. Ignore any biases or snap conclusions you may have. Dig deep into the insights the volunteer gave you and use them as a learning opportunity, even if that means changing your own behaviour.

Finally, stay in touch with them. When volunteers quit, it doesn’t mean the entire relationship has to end. They may still care about your cause and be interested in fundraisers or other events your organization holds.

Once you implement the changes required to solve the problems that caused them to leave, they may just come back.

It’s frustrating when volunteers quit but it can be a learning experience and actually make your program better in the long run.

Good luck, and if you need help, let me know.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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