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Trends in Volunteerism: From Candy Striper to Microvolunteer

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Changing Vocabulary and Short-Term Projects Affect Volunteer Programs
Trends in Volunteerism: From Candy Striper to Microvolunteer
Courtesy of Susan J. Ellis/Click to Enlarge Image

Good causes run on volunteer service. But volunteering, as many of us have known it, is changing, affected by the same social, cultural, economic, and technological changes that are sweeping through every part of our lives.

I had the pleasure of attending a webinar featuring one of the most astute experts in volunteerism today, Susan J. Ellis, of Energize, Inc.. The webinar was "Welcome, Adapt or Avoid? Responding to Trends in Volunteerism" and was produced by the Society for Nonprofit Organizations. The webinar's recording and slides are available at SNPO's website (my readers receive a $30 discount).

Susan covered a broad range of volunteer issues in the 90-minute webinar, but I've picked two that especially grabbed my attention.

Divestiture From the Word "Volunteer"

Nonprofits are discovering that the very word, "volunteer," repels as often as it attracts. "Volunteer," Susan points out, is "mired in stereotypes and negative images." The word often conjures images of a "candy-striper" in a hospital setting, an elderly woman in flowered hat, or anyone who is older, richer, or a "do-gooder."

What are nonprofits using instead of the word, "volunteer"? Some of them are on the slide above and include words that are familiar and some not so much. But they are all a way of distancing ourselves from the stereotypes that seem as dated as a 1952 sock hop.

The "new volunteers" (and that includes older people with new mindsets) are often students, kids, middle-aged people with families, single mothers or dads, hot-shot executives, entrepreneurs, and the newly retired or the just about to be retired.

Vocabulary matters, says Susan. And the vocabulary around volunteering is fracturing into many possibilities as we try to match our language to the many types of volunteers coming through our doors.

Susan suggests that nonprofits vary the labels they use for volunteers in order to attract as many skills as possible. She also suggests caution with some of the terms being used today, such as "service" or "community service." These are too vague, not to mention the fact that they are often used for court-mandated and school-mandated activities.

"Volunteering" is also often only seen as "helping," while "activist" might help or hurt depending on whether someone thinks of an activist as a flag-burning protester or an "advocate" for clean elections.

All the words that have been used comfortably in the volunteer field are now subject to connotations that we never thought of until recently. Keeping an open mind, keeping up with the trends, and listening to supporters will help avoid vocabulary land mines.

A Universal Desire for Short Term Projects

The trend toward short-term volunteering, from the weekend or one-day warrior to the microvolunteer, is no longer a trend, but a fact, says Susan.

She says, colorfully, that, "Volunteering has a terrible reputation as an endless time suck." A truism among people who volunteer is that the reward for good volunteers is more volunteering. And it is still true that we tend to reward volunteers for longevity rather than excellence. This is bad PR when we're trying to reach new people, young people, and those who just can't or don't want to commit long-term.

The trend toward shorter attention spans and shorter commitments has been abetted by a number of factors, such as the proliferation of single days of service. Just think of the 9/11 Day of Service or the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service. There are many more, at least one a month (see the calendar at Susan's website).

But there are some very good reasons people like short-term projects. For instance, there is the satisfaction of completion, seeing the beginning and end of a task. Susan points out that when volunteers accomplish something through a short-term project, it can be so satisfying that they will often return for another, thus becoming serial short-term volunteers. That is one way to build "loyalty" even while providing what so many volunteers need.

Along with the desire for short projects has come the demand for volunteer opportunities that fit the volunteer's place within the life-cycle. While the majority of volunteers are still middle-aged, there is a growing need to design appropriate opportunities for young people, families, and older people who are still working.

What volunteers want, across all ages or wherever in the life-cycle they fall, is challenge. Susan says that there is no difference between baby boomers (who may or may not be retiring) and their millennial generation grandchildren when it comes to the desire for volunteer assignments that challenge them.

What Has Made You Feel Like a Statistic?

There is much more in Susan's webinar. Her focus is on helping nonprofits get their heads around the trends that are washing over their world right now, from unemployment to the convergence of technology. How can you cope as you recruit and prepare opportunities for supporters who give their time?

At the beginning of her presentation, Susan asked this question: "What has made you feel like a statistic?"

She asked everyone to think of their own lives, and how they are being affected by the shifts in our society. Maybe we have an adult child come home again, or we are caring for an aging parent, or we have been buffeted by economic changes in our community. It's a way to walk in the shoes of our volunteers and to understand the forces affecting our organizations.

Be sure to check out Susan's website and the recording of her webinar. She is a terrific guide to all things volunteer (ummm, or other word of choice).

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