Originally posted December 2004

A free resource for nonprofit organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations,
charities, schools, public sector agencies & other mission-based agencies
by Jayne Cravens
via coyotecommunications.com & coyoteboard.com (same web site)


Learning From The “Not-So-Nice” Volunteers

by Jayne Cravens

In 2004, I was invited by Mary Merrill to write a column for her Topic of the Month: December, 2004. Here is an archive of that article:

Learning From The “Not-So-Nice” Volunteers

In an article on the World Volunteer Web in December 2005, a university student in Yemen asked, "How can you volunteer if you have no income, no money and are concerned about the means to provide your kids with something on their plates every night? With all due respect to those calling for Yemenis to volunteer, I say, 'Please be serious!'"

At a recent conference focused on the involvement and importance of volunteers, the opening ceremoney consisted of six VIPs from various nonprofit and government agencies each giving a speech to remind us of… the usual: that volunteers are oh-so-special people, that we love volunteers, that they are so helpful and make us feel so good, etc. Ending this “ceremony” was a video that was also… the usual: children and hand holding and smiles and hugs, a heart-warming song about how special it is to help one another, etc.

As I sat in the audience watching this, I thought about what an alternative, more modern video would be: perhaps visuals of the volunteer activists in Seattle a few years ago, in slow motion, throwing a garbage can through the window of a large multi-national chain restaurant, to the strains of Barbara Streisand singing “People”?

Volunteer managers and volunteers are always talked about at conferences as being “good” and being “nice.” The usual image is that volunteer managers and volunteers all help each other and the community in sweet, comforting, even benign ways.

I am a volunteer manager, and I am not really that nice. Not all the time, anyway. I do not see my job as trying to make others feel good about who they are and to be joyful in volunteering. I am not aiming for warm fuzzy feelings all around. Instead, I see my job as involving volunteers in the most effective way possible to support the mission of my organization. And if that mission happens to be, say, preserving women’s access to abortion services, or forcing drug companies to allow low-cost alternative medications to AIDS patients in third world countries, then “nice” and “comforting” are probably not going to be the first words that come to a person’s mind while watching these volunteers in action.

In addition, to paraphrase Robert Goodwin of the Points of Light Foundation, volunteers are not merely nice — they are necessary. Organizations, more and more, are involving volunteers not because it’s a nice idea but, rather, because such involvement offers the best way to address a social issue, and because they view volunteers as giving public observation and voice to their actions. Some people are volunteering in organizations they feel somewhat hostile about, specifically because they want to change the organization, or be able to report on its activities to the public. Examples: volunteers in animal shelters, or volunteer advocates in the court system. These volunteers are most certainly necessary, but might not ever be characterized as “nice.”

For such volunteer managers, is current literature on, say, how to thank volunteers with trinkets at an evening reception, really going to resonate?

I am not advocating that volunteer managers encourage their volunteers to throw garbage cans through windows, but I am saying that:

There are even practices worth learning about among political causes that you do not support personally. I do not support the so-called “gun rights” lobby in the USA at all, but there is no denying that I have learned much about the effective management of volunteers acting as advocates, and how to retain volunteers, by observing the methods of such organizations.

Current literature serves the traditional volunteer manager working in benign, non-controversial organizations reasonably well. But those volunteer managers who are looking for innovation, or are working in organizations who engage in advocacy or are addressing controversial issues, are having to look outside of traditional volunteer management literature to find practical and much-needed advice. Web sites and publications focused on human resources management, conflict resolution, facilitation, online communications or political organizing are often providing these “mavericks” with the most critical information they need, rather than the traditional volunteer management resources and organizations.

Why should a nonprofit organization (NPO) or non-governmental organization (NGO) want to explore this not-so-nice part of volunteer involvement? One reason is because of the evolving political climate: in almost every country, in almost every community, we are experiencing a “rolling back of the state.” Government is cutting social programs and cutting funding that they previously provided to NPOs and NGOs. In the process, government is trying to shift the burden of addressing a variety of social issues to NPOs and NGOs — organizations that involve volunteers. With this changing political climate and additional responsibility, NPOs and NGOs must evolve into organizations that are able to lobby for issues that need to stay on the political agenda and for resources to allow them to address such. For NPOs and NGOs to survive may mean their engaging in activities that lead the agenda, rather than just trying to fit in with the current political agenda. And volunteers can be excellent advocates in this regard. But for these volunteers to be effective advocates, they must be effectively supported.

Another reason is the changing demographics of volunteers. People who want to volunteer today are often doing it not to “give back to the community” but, rather, to be a part of a meaningful, powerful project that will truly make a difference in a cause they believe in. They have an agenda in their volunteering. They want to be an activist through their volunteering. But many volunteer managers are still operating in the old paradigm, giving volunteers mundane tasks, like stuffing envelopes, but not giving them a context for these activities, such as telling them what the specific goal of this mailing is, or telling them later what difference that particular mailing made. Volunteers today are ready to engage and to commit to more thoughtful activities, such as serving on an advisory board, or addressing city councils, or regularly contributing to online discussion groups.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if there ends up being two different volunteer management sectors, one focused only on those managing the “nice” volunteers, and those managing the “not-so-nice” ones?

And wouldn’t it be great if some new words became the usual way to describe volunteers? My suggestions: bold, innovative, challenging, confrontational, controversial, curious, and provocative.

Note: Mary Merrill was a consultant regarding volunteer engagement, a dynamic, provocative speaker, a skilled facilitator, and a frequently-cited source by other consultants and volunteerism researchers, including me. Her company was called Merrill Associates, and her web site, merrillassociates.com, is archived at archive.org. Mary served as a consultant to numerous nonprofit organizations, non-governmental organizations, charities and professional associations in the United States, Canada, Russia, Armenia, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil and the United Kingdom, and consulted with the United Nations Volunteers programme based in Germany. She taught the Institute for Community Leadership and Volunteer Administration at Ohio State University. She coordinated international study abroad projects for Ohio State University Leadership Center and North Carolina State University 4-H. She was editor of the Journal of Volunteer Administration. She was a featured speaker at three World Volunteer Conferences. She was also a licensed social worker. She received the Distinguished Service Award from the International Association for Volunteer Administration, a Lifetime Achievement Award for dedication to Volunteerism in the profession of Volunteer Administration from Volunteer Ohio, and an Award for Excellence from the Volunteer Administrators' Network of Central Ohio, she was named Peacemaker of the Year by the Interfaith Center for Peace, and received the Walter and Marion English Award from the United Way of Franklin County. She was a graduate of Ohio State University. Mary died in February 19, 2006. She was my dear friend and colleague and mentor, and the resources on her web site, merrillassociates.com, archived at archive.org, are worth your time to read.

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