Guest blog by Volunteer Warrior
If you were given 5 extra hours this week how would you spend them? Sleeping? Getting caught up on yard work? Spending time with your family? What if you were given 10 or 20 extra hours? How about some “me” time? Or getting in an extra couple of workouts? Getting through that long Netflix queue maybe?
Most people would not answer this question with volunteering. (Good for you if you did though!) Only about 25% of the US population volunteers each year. Of that 25%, some only volunteer once or twice, but a good portion of the volunteering population gives more than 15 hours of service (73.1%). So why is it that 75% of the population doesn’t volunteer a single time, but those that choose to volunteer keep coming back? Perhaps volunteers know something that others don’t.
Why aren’t more people volunteering?
The main discussion around “Why aren’t more people volunteering?” regards a lack of time; I want to break this down to understand how we can each do our part to encourage volunteerism. Now, before we jump into discussion, it is important to acknowledge that certain populations do not have the privilege of being able to donate their time (that’s right, it is a privilege to volunteer!) However, for this discussion, my comments are directed toward those who do indeed have the abilities to volunteer but “choose” not to.
To start this discussion let’s meet my imaginary friend Jenny.
Me: “Jenny, why don’t you volunteer?”
Jenny: “I would love to volunteer but I just don’t have the time.”
Let’s also meet Dave.
Me: “Dave, why don’t you volunteer?”
Dave: “Oh I don’t know, I guess I never really thought about it.”
Jenny and Dave represent MOST of the people that I talk to. Let’s break down Jenny’s response first. FACT: Everyone has time to volunteer. Every single person has 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. However, we each have responsibilities and interests that take priority and we choose to engage in those activities rather than volunteerism. Now, this is NOT to bash Jenny. Jenny is perfectly normal in her response. From how Jenny views volunteerism, she really, honestly, does not have time for it. Jenny has school, and work, and chores. Or maybe she has a family and plays guitar in a band. Or maybe she works really hard throughout the week and just enjoys her downtime. So how, as organizations and social entrepreneurs, do we convince the Jenny’s of the world that volunteerism is as important and amazing as all of her other worthwhile responsibilities? We change how we talk about volunteerism.
Who is a volunteer?
Currently, most calls for volunteers orbit around an appeal to people’s good-hearted nature (and even their guilt from time to time). But being a “good person” is not the only thing that is important to us humans. It is also important for us to have fun, to laugh, to learn new things, to make new friends, to spend time with family, to have wild adventures, to be calm and quiet, and to take care of ourselves. By appealing to such a narrow portion of the complex human interests, volunteerism ends up coming across as banal, lame, and unimportant – noble, but
unimportant. Volunteerism gets tagged as something for the do-gooders of the world, and not for the rest of us who are just trying to run into as few people as possible when we buy our groceries. This is why Dave has never given volunteering a second thought.
Start a Volunteerism Revolution
If we want to start a volunteerism revolution (which, of course we do!), we need to talk more readily about the full, vast, exciting, weird, fun, emotional, expansive, ginormous benefits and experiences that are available through volunteerism. We all KNOW in our hearts and brains that volunteering is good. We all know, by textbook, that giving back makes you feel good. However, there is a hard-to- ignore cloud of banality around volunteering that we need to blow away. The truth of the matter is, volunteering IS fun. Volunteering is also a great way to develop amazing job skills, meet new people from all over your community, to learn what you are passionate about, to express your political/social views, to discover what you are capable of, and even to understand what you do and don’t like. These benefits are huge, but they are also far from the only meaningful benefits of volunteerism. Volunteering is full of moments that will have you laughing in stitches and then welling up with tears. Volunteering is scary. Volunteering is comforting. Volunteering is a solo-adventure in self-discovery. Volunteering is a family bonding experience. Volunteering is hectic and a bit crazy. It is dirty and muddy. It is gross. It is hilarious and weird.
Make Volunteerism the Little Black Dress of “What should we do today?”
But this is not how we talk about volunteering and that matters. So let’s start talking about volunteerism this way. As nonprofit organizations, let’s give our volunteers a voice beyond why they chose our organization. Let’s ask them what their volunteer day is like, how they feel, what their best days and worst days were like, and what they have learned. As engaged social citizens, let’s tell people about our volunteer experiences. Let’s tell them about the cool people we met, and the weird things that we did, and the scary ladders we climbed, and the emotional moments that we had.
As volunteer coordinators, let’s give our volunteers a chance to reflect on their service so that the experience is meaningful and stays with them. Let’s show them how their service is reciprocal.
Let’s make volunteerism everyday-fabulous. Let’s make volunteerism the little-black- dress (versatile, fun, looks good on everyone!) of “What should we do today?”