It’s been said that time is our most valuable asset. So, it’s an incredibly precious gift when someone volunteers to give it away. It may be providing labor for a project, like building a home in a developing nation; or offering expertise, like when retired business people volunteer for organizations like SCORE to mentor budding entrepreneurs; or serving people in need, like dishing up meals at the Flagstaff Family Foodbank.
Volunteers are found in non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses. But Keith Davenport, a public relations executive who has been in charge of massive events for Disney and the Olympics, reminds us that volunteers are not free. “They need food, t-shirts, praise. Moments before the event should be the most exciting and inspirational,” he said. “I want this to be an amazing experience for everyone involved.”
Fill a Sandbag, Change Your Life
There are many reasons why people volunteer. Here are three:
It’s good for your health. Global Vision International (GVI) says studies show that helping others takes our minds off of our own problems. The GVI website states, “Your stress levels start to decrease, your immune system is strengthened and your overall sense of life satisfaction increases.” A friend of mine reports she pulled herself out of depression by exiting her pity party and volunteering for a mental health facility to listen to others who were suffering. She says that’s the moment her healing began.
It’s an opportunity to give to a cause in which you believe or something for which you have a passion. Animal lovers on the island of Kauai volunteer at the local shelter to take a dog on a hike. Surfers in California and New Jersey take kids with cognitive and/or physical disabilities out on their boards through The Best Day Foundation.
It builds skills and can boost your career. Volunteers come with a wide variety of talents or none at all. It’s likely you’ll learn some things that can be listed on your résumé later, and it could be a great networking opportunity. Relationships happen while filling sandbags.
Costs Associated with Volunteers
The idea of recruiting volunteers always seems to sound great – especially for organizations that are low on funds and have work that needs to get done. But managing volunteers is a job. Plenty of organizations have paid positions, “Volunteer Coordinators,” who do this. When volunteers are out building trails around Flagstaff, Williams or Sedona, you can be sure someone in the Forest Service has set up the trail-building event, has identified tasks and locations, is providing tools and safety gear, has arranged transportation, put together a risk assessment report and will have first aid, water and snacks available. And no doubt, someone in HR has written a job description for both the coordinator and the volunteer. All of this takes time, expertise and money.
If you haven’t thought through the process of organizing volunteers and assigning specific tasks, you’ll learn in a hurry that you’ve asked people to stand around and look at you, waiting for direction. This is a pretty uncomfortable position to be in and a horrific waste of human resources.
Volunteers need and want something in return. it might be free admission to a concert, exercise in the outdoors, a meal, time with a Disney princess, a merit badge or class credit. They most certainly may also need and want a motivational talk and a celebration at the completion of the project. Sometimes a verbal thank you is enough; often, a volunteers’ lunch and awards ceremony is in order.
When Volunteering Doesn’t Work
Volunteering is a wonderful thing, but volunteering does not work in the workplace. For example, when someone says, “I’ll watch the phones for you while you go to a doctor’s appointment, or attend a workshop, or visit your grandmother,” it doesn’t really matter what the reason is, when someone “volunteers” to fill in for you at work, the stage is set for payback or resentment.
I’ve worked for more than one organization that gives the “teamwork” speech at the annual company picnic about how we’re all in this together and how we help each other out because that’s our culture. That’s a setup for failure. It leads to unrealistic expectations and what I call “assigning responsibility without authority.”
Let’s say your job description requires you to accomplish some task, but your position is not equipped with staff to get the work done or funds to pay for hired help. Reminding co-workers about the field day where everybody bonded over rope climbing drills and thus, “you need to stop doing your job and help lead a factory tour for a troupe of traveling mimes from our sister city because the company says ‘we’re a team,’” won’t get the job done. You have no authority to expect others to participate in accomplishing the goal; yet, it’s your responsibility to lead the company in international mime visits and you will be held accountable.
I can only remember one supervisor in 25 years of public relations jobs who had the foresight to add “public education and outreach” into everyone’s job description. Even if you worked in computers and rarely spoke to humans, you could be held accountable in your annual evaluation for participating in activities that engaged with the public about the company’s mission, products or services. It became everybody’s responsibility because everybody’s job description said so. Some charter schools require students to perform so many hours of public service before they graduate. Sure, they are volunteering, but they are also receiving something in return.
Volunteers are wonderful, but they aren’t free. It’s important to think through the true costs before posting the recruitment fliers, or asking a co-worker to attend that meeting for you while you’re doing so. QCBN
By Bonnie Stevens
Bonnie Stevens is a public relations consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.