With MKL Day over for another year, Haiti in crisis, and our own neighborhoods here in Silver Spring still in need, how can we maximize the use of that wonderful community asset, willing volunteers?
Why do people volunteer? To what end? Altruism, self interest, or a little bit of both? (Ayn Rand, are you listening?) “Take care of numero uno”, we are told. But, “love (serve) your neighbor” we are also told.
In the USA the value of helping others is deeply rooted in our cultural heritage. Today, the “call to service” resonates loudly with both the aging baby boomers and the younger generation. Our current economic crisis coupled with the innate willingness of both of these generational cohorts – and the rise to the Presidency of a man that clearly ‘gets it’ – seems to be a perfect storm for a ‘new age of volunteerism’. For those of us charged with operationalizing systems, or creating opportunities to tap this ‘volunteer energy’, these are challenging times indeed.
More people in need. More people willing to volunteer. An understanding President… A perfect storm… What an opportunity! What excitement! What challenge!
However, before we jump in the volunteer bandwagon, we’d better think through the implications for the individual, organization, and community… Why do people volunteer? What organizational outcome can be expedited by the use of volunteers? How can volunteers weave into the fabric of the community rather than be seen as opportunistic outsiders? There are a gazillion other questions that we could ask. Three simple ones to consider include:
 Meaning for the individual: How meaningful should the volunteer activity be for the individual? ... Are they looking to exercise their profession and/or skills ‘for free’, enrich themselves spirituality, and/or create consciousness for a cause? What is their time commitment, restrictions and/or demand/expectations? How do we ‘segment’ the volunteer pool – youth, elderly, retired, stay-at-home parent; etc.
 Organizational purpose: What is the purpose of using volunteers in the organization? ... s it to mischievously alleviate a current condition – i.e. address staffing shortage (not good!); or is it to more effectively and efficiently meet a particular organizational objective? Are there internal opportunities for volunteers to get involved in systemic change – or would their participation be ‘busy work’ only? Is our purpose to ‘create consciousness’ – or is immediate resource savings driving the use of volunteers (short sighted!)? What is the organization’s capacity to recruit, train, and supervise volunteers?
 Community Context: How will the community benefit from the use of volunteers? ... What types of volunteer activities already exist in our community? What is the “demand”? What is the “supply? Who are the existing ‘opportunity providers’? Are the opportunities “one time only”; do they ‘sunset’; or are they permanent and ongoing? Who controls the process? Are they willing to partner?
The exact nature of the question is not that critical – as long as it is asked of prospective volunteers, leaders in the organization, and residents of the community. There is no right or wrong answer. If the questions are framed correctly, their answers will lead to efficient and effective use of volunteers. If the questions are not framed correctly, the use of volunteers can lead to individual frustrations, organizational loss of resources, and unmet community expectations.
So, what are other questions that should be asked?... Please provide yours. Do please indicate whether the question is of an individual, organization, or community; and, who should ask the question.) Chime in by posting yours as a ‘comment’ to this blog.