October 27, 2013

Staying Power

Posted in Motivation, Trends in Volunteering, Valuing Volunteers, volunteer experience tagged , , at 2:45 am by Sue Hine

20131018000812028867-originalNews headlines this week have not been pretty stories.  Blue Mountain country in New South Wales (Australia) has been devastated by the worst bush fires in forty-five years.  The pictures of a wall of flame are succeeded by burnt-out homes and grieving residents.  Acres of bush are laid waste.

The Rural Fire Service has rightly won praise and gratitude for its heroic efforts, working 12-hour shifts and staying overnight in dense bushland when required, snatching a rest when they can.  Need I add that most of them are volunteers?

I don’t think I would make a good fireman.  I’d have to get really fit, do hard yards at training, and wear all that clobber, and work long hours mostly at unfriendly times, cope with emotional and distraught people and be involved in those big disasters that turn up without warning.  It’s a big commitment.

Only twice in my volunteering career have I been asked to commit to a minimum length of service.  One was for two years, and another for just six months.  The latter, in reality, was just time to complete the basic assignment, and it took another two years before it was really done.  I’ve no doubt the rationale was to ensure a return from the investment in training and support, and to send a message that this was not a fly-by-night undertaking.

Should we spell out expectations for length of volunteer service?

The stories of loyal and long-serving volunteers are legend.  It is not unusual to find people who have been working for the same organisation for twenty-five or thirty years.  When people resign within five years it is usually for legitimate reasons: going overseas, relocating to another town, a change of employment, having babies, or a family crisis.

We all know what keeps volunteers keeping on, so my observations suggest we are doing things right: ensure volunteers enjoy a good experience with your organisation and they will stay loyal and enthusiastic.  That ‘good experience’ may vary according to organisation mission and the work of the volunteer programme.

Key indicators to maintain volunteer commitment would include:

  • Philosophy and policies that integrate volunteers throughout the organisation
  • Good relations with staff and senior management
  • Strong relationship with the manager of volunteers
  • Congruence between personal values and organisation mission and values
  • Ongoing communication, in various forms
  • Options for skill development
  • Recognition and rewards that highlight non-monetary value of volunteer contributions

Now I start thinking about that trend noted over the past couple of years, that preference for time-limited, task-focussed volunteering.  Sure, this sort of volunteering has always been available, particularly for fund-raising or events and projects, and a creative manager of volunteers knows how to find ways to engage a skilled volunteer for a few weeks or months.

I am not hearing about increases in turnover of volunteers, but if that should happen – if there is a fall-off in staying power – then prospects could be dire for volunteer programmes based around on-going services and relationships.  I can’t imagine a volunteer fireman being taken on for a six month stint.  Nor a volunteer for ambulance services, or civil defence.  Short-term volunteering would make unviable those programmes that revolve around support relationships and befriending vulnerable people.

Or does the interest in short-term volunteering stem from the rise of practical motivations, like graduate internships, work experience, ‘obligatory’ volunteering and corporate volunteering?  Is it attracting a different sort of volunteer from the stayers?

Should I be worried?


  1. Hi Sue! Thank goodness for volunteers with staying power. I think most of us have them and I know I am looking for that magic reason they stay. (haven’t found it yet). At the same time, I am seeing more and more episodic volunteers. Is that a bad thing? It doesn’t have to be. It takes some adjusting, like when you get a new undergarment. We just have to adapt if we want to be all inclusive and ahead of trends. Great topic-very timely.


    • Sue Hine said,

      Yes Meridian, adaptation is the key. Nothing is forever. So I’m looking forward to new-generation volunteers and the managing of them.


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