Volunteers with a direct, personal connection to the work of an organization are often conspicuous by their absence, particularly in human service agencies. These are recipients of service, their families and friends, or people in the facility’s immediate neighborhood. These are the folks the staff serves, and therefore are not always recognized as a source of talent.
Of course, trained, full-time, paid staff members are the primary service givers. That’s why they were hired. Yet the essential activities they perform are only a narrow slice of what the organization’s consumers need and want. If we work in mission-driven organizations, we should be trying to meet as many client needs as we can. That means going beyond the old model of “charity,” in which those who have so much give to those who have so little. We should look to the receivers of our services also as potential givers — contributors to the services we provide.
Start with the board
Consider who’s recruited to volunteer for most boards of directors. In a fledgling organization, the first board is comprised of people who most resonate on the issue being addressed. It is often from personal experience. The larger the institution, the board becomes further and further removed from the client base over time. Corporate executives, wealthy donors, and key civic leaders are sought — not because they will necessarily make the best governance decisions, but because they might give or attract money. An organization focused on a specific target population quite possibly has an ethical obligation to engage representatives of that population in planning and decision-making, both at the top and throughout the system.
Some types of organizations are better at this than others. Women’s groups, for example, would never permit a male-dominated board to lead their work. The disabilities community, too, is quite sensitive to the need for representation of their population. But how many youth-serving organizations allow someone younger than age 18 to serve on the board or give any substantial input? How many senior-centered groups include in governance someone older than age 75? Many of the organizations battling a specific disease defer to medical professionals and researchers, relegating those with the disease to an auxiliary association of patients who can feel disconnected from and even at odds with the main foundation.
The donors and funders who give money and the recipients of an organization’s services are rarely the same people. And, those who pay the piper choose the tune. Revenue is generated by impressing donors with service plans, which might not really be what the recipients of service need or want. It is important that service recipients have an avenue to communicate their wants, needs, and suggestions. Recruiting board members who represent the client perspective assures reality-based consideration of the organization’s choices.
Expanding the Talent Pool
Those in charge of an organization’s volunteer involvement strategy should draw attention to any lack of representation on the board or elsewhere and lead the thinking about how members of the client base can be part of both decision-making and service delivery. At a minimum, current volunteers can be information gatherers, informally or formally surveying clients to get first-hand information about what else the organization can do for or with them.
Approach current and past clients and their families as prospective volunteers with time and skills to give as well as needs to be met. It might help to remember that people move in and out of recipient and giver roles, and can even be both at the same time in different places. The dialysis patient at the hospital might also be a teacher at the high school; the illiterate adult might have a full-time job caring for residents in a nursing home. Just because you meet people as clients in need of the services your organization provides does not mean they are “needy” in every area of their life.
Consider some categories of clients-as-volunteers.
Sometimes we encourage volunteering by clients as an attempt to foster participation, making our services more home-like or therapeutic. Other types of client involvement encourage ownership of the activity, support self-help, and reduce any feeling that the person is receiving charity. Self-respect is thereby maintained while getting necessary work done. Some examples of this type of volunteering are:
- Chemotherapy patients organizing their own car pools and other shared support;
- Teenaged students tutoring younger students in their own school;
- Residents in a home for those with severe disabilities forming a program committee to plan special events; and,
- Seniors in a nutrition center helping to set the tables before and clean up after their lunch.
Another group of potential volunteers is people with a special or vested interest in your work. This includes family members and friends of clients, who often are directly impacted themselves by their relative’s or friend’s situation, but perhaps feel powerless to help. Older siblings of young clients are frequently overlooked as potential volunteers. Everyone recognizes the need to support parents if their children are in need, but few focus on sisters and brothers.
Do these relatives and friends have any idea that they can become volunteers if they wish? Have you ever issued the invitation? There’s special potential with anyone dealing with a long-term issue that will require frequent visits to your facility and waiting around. Volunteering can offer the caregiver unexpected respite and support.
You will want to assure that such stakeholder volunteers do not let concern for the welfare of their relative or friend overshadow the desire to support your work on behalf of everyone. Clarify roles, channels for voicing complaints (or praise), and other possible conflicts of interest. When is the relative acting as a volunteer versus as a consumer? Are all relatives welcome as volunteers, or must they first apply and be accepted into the program? And so on.
The key in these scenarios is choice. Each person must participate completely voluntarily and should have as wide an array of service options as possible. It is choice that places such activity within the realm of volunteering. Also, it is imperative that someone who does not wish to volunteer in no way jeopardizes his/her right to remain a recipient of your services.
Instead of looking for potential volunteers on the other side of town, make an effort to invite people who live or work close to your location. Your neighbors, after all, are directly affected by your presence and share a commitment to what happens in their own backyard.
Being aware that your organization is working nearby does not necessarily mean your neighbors know you are actively looking for volunteer help, nor that you value their specific skills. Walk around your block and say hello.
Finally, those who have received services successfully in the past might like to express appreciation for the help. Do you invite them to make use of their understanding of the experience by helping current clients? Many Boy and Girl Scout troop leaders were troop members themselves when young; those who have overcome addictions later support newly recovering addicts; and, university alumni act as career counselors for recent grads.
Before you put out a call for help to the whole community, think about who might already be in front of you but you’ve overlooked as a potential volunteer. NPT
Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism and Everyone Ready® online volunteer management training program www.everyoneready.info. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Web site is www.energizeinc.com