Recruit volunteers who don't 'fit the culture'

A different point of view


read an interesting report recently that got me thinking about how we tend to recruit volunteers who fit the culture of an organization.

The Volunteer Management Progress Report looks at data about leaders of volunteers. The research is done annually by Volunteer Pro's Tobi Johnson. There was a lot of insightful information in the most recent report, but the piece that jumped out at me was this, volunteering data in the U.S. shows volunteers also look like those who engage them—white (26.4% versus 19.3% of Blacks, 17.9% of Asians and 5.5% of Latinos/as), educated (65.3% with at least some college education) and women (27.8% versus 21.8% men).

Which leads me to the conclusion that when an organization recruits volunteers who fit in with the culture, it flies directly in the face of that same organization’s stated desire to increase diversity. Let’s face it, in the battle between matching the culture and increasing diversity, diversity loses every time.

It’s easy to find and attract people like ourselves but It’s hard to find and attract people when you don’t know what they’re interested in, what motivates them or where they hang out. We often don’t even know where to start and, being human (and busy), we usually opt for the easy route.

And that’s not a good thing.

Having everyone fit in is detrimental in the long run. It means that there are opportunities and threats that just aren’t seen until it’s too late. We simply don’t know what we don’t know. When the majority of the people in an organization have a similar world view, it’s like they’re wearing blinkers. They can only see what they have always seen.

I once worked with an organization that was desperately trying to increase its membership. It was a large organization, with a well-educated, forward-thinking board and capable leaders. But they seemed to keep running up against the challenge of having exhausted the market.

What they didn’t see, because they were all from either academic or corporate environments, is that there was a huge segment of the population that could benefit from being members. Blue-collar workers, who out-number white-collar workers by about two to one. And the organization never marketed to them. It simply never occurred to its leaders. It took hearing the perspective of someone who had a different viewpoint than theirs (I’m a trained cabinet maker) to open their eyes to the amazing opportunity they were missing.

That’s just one very basic example out of hundreds, or even thousands. When we require people who serve on our boards, or work or volunteer in our organizations to fit into our culture, we are deliberately blinding ourselves.

Yes, it is much easier to work with people who think or see the world the same way we do. It reduces conflict and facilitates smooth and timely decision-making. But conflict can be productive, and a smooth decision-making process doesn’t always lead to the best decisions.

As Margaret Heffernan discussed in her TED talk, Dare to Disagree, sometimes you need to have someone try to prove you wrong because only if they can’t can, you be truly confident you are right. But it takes patience and lots of energy. And it can only happen with people who think differently than you do.

So, pretend I’ve convinced you. (And if I haven’t, give me a call and we can have a productive disagreement.) How do you find people who are different than you, people Who have different world views or different experiences? People who see the things that you are blind to?

It starts with knowing yourself. Who are you? What ethnicity? What is your gender-identity? Your level of education? Your age? Are you from a rural or an urban background? What is your profession? Etc, etc, etc. Then look at the other people in your organization. How similar to you are they? Where are the gaps?

Once you have identified those gaps, you can start to watch for people who could fill them. Finding diverse volunteers starts with knowing what you’re looking for. Only then start thinking about where you might find those people.

If you want to increase ethnic diversity, talk with people at your local immigrant services society. Sexual orientation? Talk to the people who organize the Pride festivities.

Chances are, you see people who fill those gaps every day. You just don’t see them as potential volunteers or board members. You discount them because they don’t fit the culture. They don’t look or think like you.

I encourage you to fight this trend. Take off your blinkers by inviting people in who may be harder to get along with because they see the world differently. Embrace the conflict when they push back against your established beliefs.

Either learn to effectively defend those beliefs or be open to changing them. When people see things you don’t, invite them in, and listen to them. They can help you. It is worth the extra energy, and the strain on your patience.

Your organization deserves to have the benefits of a diverse group of volunteers, staff and board members. So do you. So recruit for those who don't fit the culture.

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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