My Personal Philosophy of the Volunteer Engagement Profession

My philosophy of volunteer engagement rests fully on two principles. The first being, that volunteerism is a universal act that holds the potential to be transformative for both the individual and the community it serves. The second being, the transformative potential of volunteering can be fulfilled both spontaneously and as a result of well-executed volunteer engagement practices.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no man (sic) can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” The act of doing something for someone else without expectation of remuneration is one of the most profoundly moving experiences a human being can have.[1]

 While most of us understand this from spontaneous acts of altruism throughout our lives, recent studies demonstrate the impact that this form of social interaction is having on individuals. Volunteering contributes to good mental health. In “The Five Essential Elements of Well Being"  [2] , Tom Rath and Jim Harter, of the Gallup Organization, identified “community involvement” as one of the five essential elements of wellbeing. Volunteering creates a connection and sense of belonging to a community. It provides meaning, along with opportunities to learn and grow intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. It can provide opportunities to meet new people, have new experiences, and gain new confidence.  For some, it opens up the opportunity to contribute to solutions, make change, or pursue dreams. All of these elements are fertile ground for personal transformation.

At the 2008 CAVR/PAVR-O conference Susan Ellis challenged volunteer managers with the question – do your volunteers know how to articulate their value? Do they fully comprehend how their role increases the capacity of organizations to deliver on their mission, and impact communities? Volunteer contribution statistics (Canadian Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating 2010)[3] are staggering across a broad spectrum of Canadian society from the political process to education to culture, sport, health, and homelessness. The list is almost endless. It is the part of democracy which Barrack Obama referred to as the “price and promise”[4] of citizenship in his inaugural Presidential address in 2009. People are engaging, supporting, supervising, teaching, tracking, problem solving, innovating, serving, contributing in the name of democracy and community. We are what we create in our communities. Volunteers enable communities to create, sustain and transform themselves beyond the limitations of government and commerce.

The 2011State of the World’s Volunteerism Report (United Nations Volunteers)[5]offers a glimpse into the power of volunteerism in developing nations. While the impact is too vast to describe in this context, one of the most important aspects of volunteerism is its’ inherent ability to express the collective will of a people. It is a tool for social change and a way in which disenfranchised people can gather together to express their collective will without the influence of organized political parties or institutions. It is a tool with which citizens build community.

Volunteering is a universal phenomenon. It is not always done the same way or called the same thing. In many cultures it remains largely informal, although some would argue highly organized. Volunteering continues to go on informally in many countries with long traditions of organized volunteering. People continue to provide support to their neighbours, help strangers during times of duress, or mentor promising youth in their workplaces or communities. Many people contribute to faith based initiatives, club activities, or sports fundraisers without really considering what they are doing as volunteering.

While volunteering in its most spontaneous form is the milieu for transformation, ranging from the unfettered expression of will of a disenfranchised people, to the emotional or spiritual transformation of an individual,

I believe that professional volunteer management holds the potential for the cultivation and facilitation of such a milieu, if done well, and with great care.

Volunteer management has grown out of the need to organize, integrate and oversee volunteers in a way that connects the needs of an organization or community with people who possess the skills, desire and dedication to help meet those needs. As the complexity of volunteer involvement in organizations has grown, so too has the recognition of the needs and rights of volunteers for supportive environments and meaningful assignments. The role of the professional volunteer manager is to be aware of, and prepared for, the needs of both the organization and the volunteers in the co-creation of a productive, rewarding, and transformative experience for all.

The potential for individual transformation lies in meaning, connection, and efficacy or impact. It is a basic part of our humanity to search for meaning in life. One of the places we find meaning is in ‘helping others’ or ‘making the world a better place to live.’ Times, places, and methods we seek to connect with meaning in our lives vary widely. Stepping up and stepping into a volunteer role is one point of engagement with meaning that is available to people throughout their lives.

Providing clarity in the mission and goals of an organization; the way in which the organization fulfills its’ mission and reaches its goals,  the roles that volunteers play in that fulfillment, and the way in whichvolunteers’ contribution impacts the people served by an organization, are key pieces to setting up a transformative experience for both volunteer and organization. Volunteers need to feel connected to, and part of, something greater than them. They need to feel acknowledged and respected through meaningful assignments consistent with their skills and levels of commitment. They need to feel a part of the overall plan of the organization rather than a disenfranchised reinforcement that sits on the sidelines largely ignored. Volunteers will come to understand their place within an organization not only by the words that are spoken, but in roles they are asked to occupy; the resources they have at their disposal; the times their input is accepted (or not); and the impact their actions create. All of these things have the potential to come to fruition through the volunteer management process – needs assessment, role descriptions, risk assessment, recruitment, screening, placement, orientation, training, supervision, administration, communication, and recognition. All of these actions help cultivate the milieu for a transformative experience for the volunteer.

On the other hand, professional volunteer management practices help set the stage for organizations to experience transformation. The unfiltered, unorganized, and unsupervised entry of volunteers into an organization minimizes not only the opportunity, but quality, variety, and sustainability of volunteer contributions to an organization. It is akin to a mass of well intentioned, dedicated and enthusiastic solders lining up to join an army that has no structure between enlistment and deployment, to fully harness their potential. In some circumstances, natural leaders arise, things eventually get sorted out, and something is accomplished. In other circumstances, uncertainty erodes enthusiasm, chaos takes over, or dissolution occurs.

Professional volunteer managers assess needs, articulate potential, harness resources, provide orientation, instruct and train, ensure supervision and support, and facilitate recognition. They are the liaison between management, staff and volunteers. They are sensitive to the needs and boundaries of all parties and work to finesse the integration of volunteers into the right places to enhance the capacity of an organization (to fulfill its mission, meet its’ goals, and serve its constituents) and meet the expressed needs (supporting a cause, contribution to community, vocational experience etc.) of volunteers. When both parties are meeting their expressed needs in a mutually beneficial relationship, that serves and impacts community constituents, engagement occurs. An organization that is properly prepared to receive and deploy skilled and talented volunteers, and reward them for their motivation and dedication with meaningful, resourced, and supported roles, can truly be transformed. Capacity may be enhanced through an increased number of programs available; elevated quality of program delivery; an increased level of support available to staff; an increase in resources; an increase in connections made within the community (leading to pro bono expertise, the potential for collaboration, innovation, or growth); and most importantly, a greater positive impact on the people served by the organization.

The very act of volunteering holds intrinsic value to the individual whether they choose to do something informally for an individual without expectation of a reward, or participate in a movement or mission to bring about significant social change. Even without altruism – motivated by the need to gain work experience or just to have some fun – volunteering holds the potential to be a transformative experience for an individual if true engagement occurs.

The presence of volunteers within an organization holds intrinsic transformative potential. Volunteers are community members, each uniquely skilled, dedicated, creative, resourceful in what they can bring to an organization. The commitment by an organization to involve volunteers in a meaningful and responsible way through the adoption of best practices and the engagement of professional volunteer management increases the capacity of an organization to create a milieu ripe for the discovery and, harnessing, of skilled, talented, creative and resourceful citizens who present themselves to serve.

This article is part of my application package for Professional Volunteer Management Certification with PAVR-O.

[1]Author unknown

[2]The Five Essential Elements of Well-being, Tom Rath and Jim Harter, Gallup Press, 2010

[3]Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating, Statistics Canada, 2010

[4]Inaugural Address, U.S. President Barack Obama, Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 2009

[5]State of the World’s Volunteerism Report, Robert Leigh, United Nations Volunteers (UNV),2011