Now What? Alternative Volunteering for Sustainability
Volunteering has changed dramatically over the past few decades and rightfully so, there have been major shifts in the ways that we live and work—and volunteering has inevitably changed along with it. Potential volunteers—especially younger volunteers—increasingly have less time, less capacity and more responsibility to juggle in their private lives. A 2010 survey by Statistics Canada revealed that two-thirds of Canadian volunteers surveyed reported that their key reason for not volunteering is not having enough time. The inability to make a long-term commitment was the second most common reason cited for not being able to volunteer.
Older volunteers are also experiencing changes to the ways they volunteer. As organizations look for new ways to engage volunteers by increasing digital messaging and adjusting their volunteer programs to fit the needs of younger volunteers, some older volunteers are getting left behind.
The valuable contributions of older volunteers are certainly something organizations need to consider when developing their volunteer programs as older volunteers typically devote more hours to volunteering overall and tend to be more engaged in habitual long-term volunteering. A factor in the widening of this gap as of late have been the challenges brought in with the COVID-19 pandemic—the results of a May 2020 survey conducted by the GPVSB found that 74% of responding organizations in the Grande Prairie area reported that they had either closed their facilities or cancelled programming during the first lockdown. This has significant impact on older volunteers who typically do their volunteering in-person and on a regular basis. Older people have also been disproportionally affected by the pandemic, as the age group most severely affected by COVID-19. Types of Volunteering
The ways that we volunteer has also changed, where some roles that would have traditionally been performed in person or required a long-term commitment can now be done from home or over a short period of time—sometimes even at the volunteers’ exclusive convenience.
Volunteering from the perspective of the organization has also changed. Charities, non-profits and community groups are increasingly under pressure to provide more services with less funds. Volunteers make significant contributions to these organizations, in 2018 12.7 million Canadians aged 15 and older volunteered formally, a work equivalent of more than 863,000 full-time year-round jobs. That is a significant cost-savings to organizations that rely on volunteers, especially those that volunteer in an operational capacity—as many organizations simply cannot afford the cost of having paid staff and the employment related costs that come along with it. Without these necessary volunteers, organizations could not carry out the programs and supports that they provide to the community.
Throughout the past two years these funding and volunteer challenges have become an even larger issue. In Alberta, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations saw their funding decrease or disappear altogether due to budget cuts within government but also less cash-flow from business as a result of a sluggish economy. A few months later as the pandemic made its way across the globe many charities, non-profits and community groups were forced to cancel programming, fundraising events and other revenue generating activities.
This change also impacted volunteers and the way organizations utilized volunteers. With most of the country under a stay-at-home order, many volunteers were not able to continue in their roles and many organizations were not adequately prepared to pivot immediately into a digital delivery of services and a digital utilization of volunteers.
Since then, the sector has rapidly evolved, creating new and exciting ways to engage and utilize volunteers. As we start to head towards recovering from the pandemic, we need to build on that momentum and continue to find new and meaningful ways to utilize volunteers to ensure the sustainability of these critical organizations. A well-rounded and inclusive volunteer management program is one of the tools an organization can develop to do this effectively.
When developing and reviewing volunteer management programs, organizations should consider the following:
- Utilize volunteers to fill in the gaps – the work of volunteers can benefit an organization tremendously, but they must be able to identify the gaps that exist that volunteers can fill. It’s also important to think beyond what we typically think of as ‘volunteer work’. Volunteers can bring both brain and brawn to the organization, so considering high-level needs such as professional advice or expertise on a project is important when building and adapting volunteer management programs.
- Rethink recruitment strategies – utilize digital services for volunteer recruitment including social media to reach volunteers where they are at. Another strategy to consider is peer-to-peer recruitment, in which current volunteers help with the recruitment of others. This method can be effective because the potential volunteer can ask questions freely but also get a feel for who they would be working alongside with and what the organization is really about.
- Consider roles for youth volunteers – youth volunteers are increasingly looking for volunteer roles and often struggle to find placement within organizations. Youth volunteers can bring a lot to the table—different perspectives, new ideas, greater flexibility in time, enthusiasm, and energy. Studies have shown that youth who get involved in volunteering, volunteer for life. Nurturing our next generation of volunteers is extremely important to ensure the sustainability of our local charities, non-profits and community groups in the future. Organizations can make their volunteer opportunities more inclusive for youth by specifically advertising for youth volunteers, offering flexibility, removing barriers and by providing meaningful and rewarding work. Another option to consider is developing youth-specific roles such as youth representatives on a board of directors or a youth ambassador program.
- Utilize volunteers to their fullest potential – often when we develop roles for volunteers we tend to focus on the ‘brawn’ and not so much on the ‘brain’. If you spend some time scrolling through volunteer listings and you will likely find many roles are often tied to events and a need for labour. What you don’t always find is organizations looking to utilize the expertise and personal skills of an individual volunteer.
A skills-based approach to volunteer recruitment can be a very lucrative practice for organizations—especially those who many not be able to meet all of their needs through their paid staff. A skills-based approach looks for the skills of a volunteer rather than a specific role or position. This can look like a subject-matter expert lending some of their time to help with a portion of a project, a social media manager that has some time to help with a digital marketing strategy or a professional willing to give free advice or insight over the phone—these are all valid and valuable forms of volunteering.
- Offer flexibility to all volunteers – when developing volunteer management programs, organizations should consider developing short-term flexible opportunities that meets the needs and demands of those with busy schedules as well as longer term roles for those that might have more time and desire more involvement. Virtual volunteering is also something to consider as it allows for participation by those who may not be located in the organization’s immediate area.
- Solicit feedback from volunteers – an organization should solicit feedback from volunteers regarding their experiences and use that data to guide changes and adjustments to the volunteer management program. Volunteers often have varying motivations for volunteering, it can come from a desire to help others, an opportunity to use new or existing skills or even just a chance to socialize outside of work and home. If organizations don’t consider whether they are meeting those expectations, they risk losing the valuable contributions of those individuals.
- Consider the needs of older volunteers – older volunteers make extremely valuable contributions to organizations. A 2018 survey completed by Statistics Canada found that older volunteers (56+) commit the most hours to volunteering across all generations. It is important to carve out meaningful space for these volunteers and to consider their needs when developing volunteer roles.
- Be prepared to evolve – as the volunteer landscape changes, organizations need to pick up and evolve as well to ensure sustainability. Volunteer recruitment cannot be looked at merely as a box to tick or a position to fill with a body. Organizations need to view volunteer recruitment as a partnership with the individual and work with them to effectively utilize the time and the skills they bring to the table.
- Make the experience rewarding – humans are reward-seeking by design, when we get a reward our brains automatically seek out more rewarding stimuli. If volunteers do not feel that their work is valued or rewarding, they may not continue to come back to that role. Several studies over the years that have looked at volunteer retention found that organizational factors such as the utilization of the volunteer’s skills, appreciation and support from the organization, performance feedback—and to a lesser extent, incentives and performance-based rewards were the biggest drivers for volunteer satisfaction.
A simple thank-you goes a long way—but organizations should also look at meaningful ways to show their appreciation to volunteers. This is especially important in situations where the volunteer might not be able to see the positive results of their work, which often the case in micro- and episodic volunteering situations.
Regular, steady volunteers will always be the backbone of the non-profit sector, but if organizations can adapt to utilizing volunteers in new and meaningful ways, they can help fill the gaps in their organizational capacity and ensure a sustainable future.