A television show now in syndication, Numb3rs, revolved around two brothers, one an FBI agent and the other a mathematics professor. Every week, no matter the crime presented, the math whiz helped to solve the felony by applying game theory, chaos theory, and other mathematical calculations.
The series clearly demonstrated that no matter how skilled, experienced, or brave the FBI agents, someone with different talents and a new perspective could contribute to successful results.
Which brings us to volunteers. One key to increased impact — and to resolving the ever-present tension between employees and volunteers — is consciously recruiting volunteers who, by design, are as unlike the paid work force as possible.
The most commonly-used model for volunteer involvement is to carve work for volunteers out of the to-do list of paid staff. In other words, volunteer roles are designed as unpaid staff assistants. It then follows that new volunteers must have the qualifications to help with employees’ jobs (but not too qualified, so as not to be threatening, of course). This sets up several uncomfortable dynamics:
- The paid staff is sharing work for which they are responsible and will be held accountable. So a volunteer who does not produce what is necessary leaves the paid worker holding the bag. Conversely, if the volunteer performs exceptionally well, will someone wonder why the organization needs the employee?
- Because of this job-sharing dynamic and risk, paid staff narrow qualifications they are willing to accept in a new volunteer. They look more and more for volunteers who are like themselves. And, if the volunteer resources manager proposes someone less or differently qualified, it’s perceived as insulting to the professionalism of the employees.
- Labor unions see the volunteer-as-helper model as a way to avoid hiring more needed personnel and so put up obstacles.
So resistance and potential conflict are inherent in the situation of volunteer-as-assistant. For the right work, the right employee, and the right volunteer, it might be successful. But why not start from a stronger footing?
A much more creative model, and one with great potential for genuine impact on the cause you serve, is to stop looking at the job descriptions of paid staff and take two new directions: put unexpected skills to work for your organization; and, focus on expanding service to clients/consumers.
It takes some skill to learn of someone’s expertise or talent and be able to picture how it might fit into your organization. This is not about squeezing square pegs into round holes, since it is much more responsible to urge someone with a skill you cannot use to find an agency that really needs it. Rather, this is a challenge in out-of-the-box thinking to end up with a great service or project.
An example of engaging unexpected talents is the anti-littering campaign a few years ago in northeastern Pennsylvania that formed a partnership with the local high school art department. Student artists painted community trash cans with quick art lessons about the work of famous painters. Voila! A meaningful service-learning project in art plus calling attention to tossing litter into the right receptacles plus beautifying the neighborhood plus free public cultural education. Win-win-win-win.
Colleagues seeking free admission to their events approached a number of conference planning committees. What turned the tide was discovering that some of these people had hidden talents, particularly in massage therapy and reflexology. By bartering volunteered services for free registration, those conference committees were blissful throughout very stressful days.
All organizations have mission statements addressing causes that are multi-dimensional, and the complexity of our world is only increasing. So how can a basically homogenous workforce hope to solve all the problems?
Paid staff members are generally between the ages of 21 and 65, having similar or compatible educational backgrounds, tend to represent only a few social and economic strata. There are no such limits when it comes to volunteers.
By consciously recruiting a volunteer corps that more closely matches an organization’s client base, rather than employee profile, a huge knowledge base of first-hand understanding of the issues clients face is brought in house. Or, by making an effort to recruit volunteers from a long list of different occupations, the organization gains both an interdisciplinary approach to finding solutions and an ever-increasing circle of new contacts for additional resources, fundraising, and more volunteer recruitment.
Consider the following question: What do our clients/consumers need that would support them in making the best use of our services, but which no one on staff is hired to do?
Let’s say your organization does family counseling and has a sizeable low-income client base. Rather than find volunteers who can do counseling, what about seeking out volunteers capable of guiding clients in banking and budgeting? Finding better low-cost housing options? Arranging summer camperships for the kids? You can see that these sorts of activities do not conflict with the employee’s focus but certainly support the family in different ways that the employee helps to identify.
Most animal shelters relegating pet-loving volunteers to mucking out cages, missing the opportunity to deploy people who might develop online searches for “adoptive” families or to reunite lost pets with owners; write age-appropriate guides for children about pet care; follow up on placed animals to learn how the shelter could have been more helpful to the new owners; and more.
The benefits of recruiting for differences are enormous:
- The pool of potential volunteers is limitless because you are no longer looking for only a narrow group of people with similar qualifications.
- You will find it easier to recruit more highly-skilled people because the types of things you are asking volunteers to do will be more challenging and appealing than simply “helping the staff.”
- If you design assignments well, employees are not threatened by volunteer engagement and, in fact, truly welcome it because they see how volunteers do so much more than would have been possible before.
If you can’t picture what sorts of “different skills” might work in your setting, try looking around your neighborhood. What sorts of businesses or facilities are within a few blocks or a mile of where you’re located? Go and introduce yourself and pose the question: “How might we collaborate by matching the needs of our organization with the talents of yours?” If nothing else, you’ll have some fascinating conversations.
***Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is www.energizeinc.com