By Darrin Wasniewski, State Main Street Coordinator and Organization/Promotion Specialist

In a previous post I shared the four dimensions of sustainable impact according to Marc Smiley—strategy, brand, leadership and culture—and highlighted culture as the most critical. An attractive organizational culture allows you to recruit and retain volunteers that are crucial to the work in our districts. But have you noticed that volunteering has changed—that people just don’t seem to be as available as they once were? Instead of assuming that people have given up on volunteering, I’d posit that volunteering has evolved.

It used to be that we would organize a committee to tackle an opportunity or overcome a challenge. People would sit in meetings for hours on end, sometimes long after the original project was complete. But in the fast-paced digital era, we all have so many things jockeying for our attention. In some cases, the transformation of volunteering may be a good thing—we’ve all heard stories of someone being stuck on a committee because no one else has stepped up, and who wants that sentence?

Researchers on modern volunteerism, Jonathan and Thomas W. McKee, identified societal changes that impact volunteer management in The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer. Energize Inc. highlights these changes in their A-Z Volunteer Management section of their website:

  1. Family dynamics: From Father Knows Best to Two and a Half Men
  2. Isolation: From community to individualism
  3. Flexibility: From rigid scheduling to volunteer availability
  4. Generations: From experienced veterans to novice Gen Y
  5. Technology: From face-to-face to cyberspace
  6. Professionalism: From skilled workers to knowledge workers
  7. Episodic volunteering: From long-term commitments to short-term projects
  8. Slacktivism: From hard work to easy “feel-good” tasks
  9. Micro-volunteering: From big-time commitments to bite-sized projects
  10. Speed: From slow movements to fast responses to change

Smiley has a succinct way of explaining a new volunteer management approach to match this shift: recruit to task, grow to project, evolve to leadership. Recruit to task is the beginning of the relationship with our volunteers. We start off slow, each making small deposits into our trust accounts as promises are kept. In his book The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, Stephen R. Covey details the power of trust in relationships. “Trust,” he claims, “is the new currency of our interdependent, collaborative world.” If that’s the case, then the trust that exists between volunteers and the causes they believe in is vital to affecting positive change.

Tasks can be as simple as volunteering during an event or applying knowledge to move a larger project forward. Many times, task-based volunteering does not require someone to be physically present to complete the task. Technology could allow them to fulfill their commitment remotely and when they have the availability. The important part of the trust building during the “recruit to task” phase is that both sides uphold their commitments.

As trust builds, the volunteer might be willing to take on more responsibility, and the organization must be confident that they can handle it. Together, they enter the grow to project phase. This is marked by a movement from micro-volunteering to episodic volunteering. Notably, the engagement is still of a shorter-term variety with a defined beginning and endpoint. With staff support, a volunteer in this phase serves as a project manager, increasing his or her exposure to the organizational culture. The volunteer develops a deeper understanding of the organization’s mission and grows in his or her connection to the organization’s cause. The Army National Guard’s Child and Youth Services program has an informative online training called Volunteer Management in the 21st Century: Strategies for Recruiting, Engaging and Managing. This resource is just as applicable to our work in downtown development as it is to youth programming, and serves to highlight that this shift is taking place across the entire nonprofit sector, underscoring the need to develop a new engagement approach if we wish to create sustainable impact.

Visual on building a leadership structureEvolve to leadership is a different approach than typically happens. Volunteers who have moved through this continuum possess a deeper knowledge of the organization and its work, and are better equipped to help lead it into a sustainable future. A set of concentric circles illustrates this concept best. An organization’s goal should be to move people from the outer circles to the inner core—the board. Each step toward the circles’ center comes with a deeper level of involvement, with the board representing the ultimate level—responsible for strategic direction, fiscal health, resource development and leadership development. It only makes sense that those in the center, who are helping to lead the organization, have built trust and possess a broad-based understanding of the organization’s mission.

Recruit to task, grow to project, evolve to leadership: this is a stronger leadership development approach than just selecting someone because you have an empty board seat. Volunteer management for the 21st century requires a different approach from what had been practiced even a generation ago. Today’s volunteers seek to make a difference while juggling busy schedules. They have a tremendous amount to offer if organizations are willing to make some adjustments to accommodate them.