The Way to Have A Great Volunteer Experience

Jul 28, 2015 | Social Responsibility

Confession time: I struggle with volunteering.

Specifically I struggle to find volunteer experiences that are meaningful and useful to the nonprofit. In my last post I talked about a board member who felt he, the board, and his committee didn’t accomplish anything significant over the course of several years. They may have maintained the status quo, but that was about it. Maintaining the status quo is not enough.

The fact that I struggle with volunteering seemed really embarrassing to admit to myself and aloud. When I woke up this morning, it was just the clearest thing on my mind: I struggle with volunteering.

There are certainly a range of experiences: from great to horrible; from one hour to 11,000 hours. I don’t want to chronicle all the possibilities here. But what has become very evident to me is that volunteers need more tenacity. We need more people willing to get past the superficial and do the dirty work alongside nonprofit staff, and, more importantly, ALONGSIDE those who are seeking help from these nonprofits.

Why Tenacity is Needed.

A couple of weeks ago, my dear friend, Andrea (the Big [which is funny to say because Andrea is 5′ 4″ on a good day and weighs 100 lbs. soaking wet]), and her Little, Kindra, shared their experiences at a fundraising breakfast for Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Central Indiana. Initially, they were matched with a commitment for one year. They’ve now had a strong relationship for more than 11 years.

Over the years, they’ve been through A LOT together. While I don’t have permission to share all of their individual struggles here, they each ended their piece of the presentation by saying that they are more than FRIENDS; more than MENTOR/MENTEE. They have both GIVEN and RECEIVED and they are SISTERS in the truest sense of the word.

Andrea’s life is better because Kindra is in it and Kindra’s life is better because Andrea is in it.

It is this kind of volunteering that morphs into something much more meaningful and changes the world. But this took a long time to develop.

Volunteers sometimes want to change the world in one Saturday. They want to feel good about themselves for a Saturday afternoon and be done with their commitment to “give back.” This is not enough.
Andrea and Kindra

The real work happens over a long period of time.

What our sector needs is more people willing to invest in relationships. These relationships are needed between volunteers and staff; between staff members; between donors and staff. YOU need to invest MORE of YOURSELF. I need to invest MORE of MYSELF.

We need to get past the dog and pony shows that suffice as board meetings. We need to get past the  sunshine and rainbows. We need to get past just sharing our success stories and discuss what happens when we think we’re not seeing progress or our definition of success. Here are ways to invest more of yourself as a volunteer:

  • Ask for more difficult volunteer assignments.
  • Develop a relationship with a few clients that you connect with. Keep in mind that this relationship is a two-way street where you both need to share in order to develop a friendship. Get past trying to help or fix their problems. Just listen.
  • Talk to the staff about the laws and regulations that affect their work. See how they are helpful and how they are a hindrance.
  • Ask about the realities of their funding sources. Some question you might pose: how do grants serve the mission and what are the challenges with them? What are your top fundraising challenges each year? How can I help you with this?
  • Show up more often and for different kinds of events.
  • Keep showing up without judgment. Commit to compassion.
  • Challenge the status quo after you’ve done your research. Change things up.

For volunteer managers, find ways to provide this information and opportunities for relationships to volunteers and provide more challenging commitments.

I realized while listening to Andrea and Kindra that I need more tenacity. That’s why I struggle at times. I’ve also learned to discern which volunteer experiences are right for me. My husband and I recently began a bi-weekly commitment to an organization that serves youth who are homeless. When asked what they do, the staff and board members say, “We develop transformative relationships with 14-to-24 year olds who are experiencing homelessness.” They don’t describe their services as providing meals, toiletries, and case management (which is all true). Their mission is something larger and that’s what they communicate. We want to be part of that transformative relationship.

That’s my commitment from here on out: find volunteer opportunities where I can invest all my resources wholeheartedly and be willing to be changed in the process.

How do you need to change your commitment as a volunteer to affect change?