The history of volunteering
Volunteering began as a function of charitable work. In the 19th century, large charitable efforts were made by people (often wives of rich men) who wanted to improve or ameliorate the lives of the less fortunate. Most of the labour involved was without financial remuneration. As some of these charities grew and were able to raise funds, they were able to hire paid staff. Gradually, the role of volunteers in most organisations diminished.
For most of the history of volunteering, the typical volunteer-involving organisation has confined volunteers to roles that might be deemed “useful, ancillary activity.” There are dozens of exceptions to this generalisation of course (St, John Ambulance, Scouting, Cricket clubs, etc), but in the majority of volunteer-involving organisations, volunteers did things that required little skill. My theory is that in organisations in Western countries, the most skilled and experienced people are paid the most money, and so when we think about roles for volunteers, who get paid nothing, we automatically create jobs that require little skill or experience. It can be said that this tendency has needlessly blunted the effectiveness of charities and other not-for-profit organisations.
How volunteers can play a strategic role in your organisation
All not-for-profit organisations exist to solve community problems or meet community needs. But no matter how good their fundraising is, they will never be able to hire enough people to really solve those problems or fully meet those needs. We will help a lot of people. We will do a lot of good. But the problem will continue.
In every community, there are lots of people who are concerned enough about the problem or the need that they would give their skills and energies to help solve it. But they don’t know how to get involved, and they are never asked because the organisations haven’t imagined roles that would allow them to get involved in significant ways.
In The Complete Book of Volunteer Management, we lay out advice for the person managing volunteers in today’s organisations. There is a strategy laid out for how volunteers can play a strategic role in the organisation. In a nutshell, there are lots of things an organisation can do to solve the problem, but they don’t do them because they don’t have enough funding to support the requisite staff. Volunteers can enable organisations to escape their financial constraints.
If you had unlimited funds, how would you use the money?
As a fun and energising experience, I suggest gathering together the staff of your organisation (or just the managers if it is a large organisation) and ask them this: “If we were suddenly gifted with unlimited funds, what would we hire people to do here that would help us accomplish our mission?” Each of the answers to those questions is a potential volunteer role. Every time I have done this with a group, people get very excited and optimistic about what they could accomplish.
Find people who care
Sometimes they will ask me: “How do we convince people to volunteer for these roles?” This misstates the nature of volunteer recruitment. As we explain in the book, volunteer recruitment is not about convincing people to help. It is about finding people who already care about the problem the agency is addressing, who already want to do something about it, and showing them how they can help to solve it. We lay out a systematic way to approach this.
In this way, the true potential of volunteers to reshape communities for the better can be tapped. Involving volunteers in these significant, strategic roles is, in fact, the only way to solve serious social problems and meet community needs.