If we pause long enough in our busy, fast-paced environment to “see the forest” rather than the trees, we will soon catch on that there is a growing challenge out there in the non-profit world, and it starts with the question “Where have all the volunteers gone?”.The computer, meant to save us time and shorten our work weeks (remember that promise?) has had the opposite effect. Information overload, work that follows us wherever we go, emails on our cell phones… all this has lead to a time where leaders don’t have the time to lead and volunteers don’t have the time to follow. There are busy in their own “electronic worlds”.
One of the biggest challenges to non-profit association executives is the dedicated volunteer that loves the organization, wants to help and make things happen, until he or she walks out of the room and forgets all about that desire once returning to an office with 5 phone call waiting, 25 emails requiring a response, an inbox full of “snail mail”, electronic and print news media waiting to be reviewed not to mention kids with cell phones calling for rides to their next practice, performance, sporting event or school project.
There are still many people in our world that want to volunteer and help their community. Volunteerism has not faded away but the face of volunteerism is changing. YP’s (young professionals) are busy socializing on Facebook and may not even attend your non-profit organization’s events unless you reach them electronically. Generation X-er’s are starting to have children and are finding themselves with less and less free time to give. Baby Boomers are being stretched to the limit, working for corporations with high expectations and most likely caring for children, parents or both. 1990, a typical non-profit organization could count on getting 5 volunteers on a Saturday morning to work 8 hours each on a clean-up project. Today you would more likely find that you need at least 20 volunteers to give up 2 hours each to reach the same 40 hour work goal. People still want to help – they just have less time to offer. On the organization side – it is far more difficult to manage 20 volunteers than 5, and doing so requires more flexibility, greater management and people skills and an adjusted level of expectations. Things aren’t worse – but they are definitely different.
Does this mean we need to go out and find new strategies to accomplish the goals set by our leaders? Maybe. But it also means that if we are still conducting the same fundraisers and trying to manage the same projects we did 20, 10 or even 5 years ago, and expecting to get the same results – we are probably really disappointed right now! The face of volunteerism is changing. And the expectations of the volunteer may also be changing. They expect us not to waste their time (because they have no spare time to give us). They expect us to respect their family time. They expect us to understand that they really don’t need another plaque on the wall. They want us to “Get it” – that it’s not their resume that they are trying to build, it’s the community. If they don’t see their efforts making a difference – then they will quietly walk away, without fanfare, and find another place to put their precious volunteer time where they know it will make a difference.
If you participate as a board member or volunteer in a non-profit organization, what does this mean to you? It means you probably are going to need more staff than you once did to make things happen. That means more money dedicated to organization overhead at a time when non-profit organization budgets are being scrutinized more than ever before. You will need to do a better job of selling your organization in the community in order to get the funding you need to accomplish your goals. But most of all – you will need to make sure what is being asked of volunteers is meaningful and that their time and talents are used effectively. Don’t meet to meet, meet only when necessary. Respect the time of your volunteers and appreciate what they can do – be it large or small. Every hour is important. Every dollar is important. It’s up to us to make the most of that.
By PHYLLIS SNOGGRASS
President – San Marcos Area Chamber of Commerce