April 10, 2016
In all the chatter (and the writing) about volunteers and volunteering, about community organisations and their services, about governance and fundraising and publicity and professionalism, I do not often hear voices raised about the experience of volunteering.
Yes, there’s many a volunteer’s story to tell, usually a glowing account of being involved in the community, being passionate about a cause, learning new skills which accessed paid work, but less about the role and tasks, and the direct experience of being a volunteer.
There are plenty of examples of volunteer profiling, by age, gender, ethnicity, education – all the demographics which might indicate trends, but which do not tell us anything about what it is like to volunteer. Likewise, the boasting of volunteer programmes by numbers of volunteers, their donated hours and a little of the tasks they undertake for an organisation is not a real picture of volunteer experience.
There’s all the research that shows off the health and social benefits of volunteering – we can live longer and continue being active in our communities. Volunteering is also the way for new migrants to become engaged, and to improve language skills. But what is it really like to be a volunteer?
We do the recognition and rewards through annual events, and say ‘thank you’ plenty of times in everyday practice. But when do we ask volunteers what it is like for them?
And yes, there are exit interviews or questionnaires when a volunteer leaves an organisation. Not a universal practice, and not always capturing what the experience has meant for the volunteer. It’s too easy for the volunteer to fudge responses to the questions, or to not answer at all.
So I’m looking out for the studies, or for someone to take on research, which addresses the question:
WHAT IS YOUR EXPERIENCE OF VOLUNTEERING?
OK, it’s complex. What sort of sample is needed? Which sector or sectors to include? Which location(s)? Include all ‘types’ of volunteers – from governance to fundraising and events, as well as regular roles – or be selective? And what are the questions to ask?
In 2012, Volunteering Auckland published Martin J Cowling’s suggestions to consider the way volunteering impacts on volunteers:
Have you asked your volunteers what volunteering has done for them? Many will describe the impact of the services they have given, the people they have touched and the difference they feel they have made.
There’s a lot more to find out, as Susan J Ellis wrote in 2006. She asked Wouldn’t It Be Nice to Really Know, arguing that volunteering is so complex that ‘a simplistic overview of aggregate numbers is not enough for us to understand what is going on’. The article includes a raft of potential questions that could offer some serious data on volunteer experience.
And then there is a report published by the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy in 2004 on Understanding Canadian Volunteers. While this document is aimed at people new to management of volunteers (and it’s got some good data and advice for a volunteer programme), the benefit of understanding volunteer experience helps to consider:
- the obstacles you may encounter in recruitment and retention;
- the challenges you may face in job design and scheduling;
- the issues that may arise as you develop your volunteer training programs; and,
- how best to recognize volunteers through recognition activities.
Yes, these issues are important for a volunteer programme to be effective. More than the trappings of motivation, I want to see what it really takes to keep a volunteer keeping on. Maybe then we will get to understand and appreciate the full contributions of volunteers to our organisations and communities, and their real value. We will cease ‘using’ volunteers; we will ensure meaningful work; and we will honour their work in a hundred ways, for the value added to the organisation’s mission and for what they have shown us about the spirit of giving.