GETTING STARTED IN VOLUNTEER WORK
Initial attractions not always what keeps volunteers involved
There are almost as many reasons for getting involved in volunteer work as there are volunteers. And the initial impetus may or may not be what keeps new volunteers coming back. Frequently, once people get started, they find that their deepest rewards are ones they didn't expect when they first came looking for a volunteer assignment.
Participants entered the volunteer world through ads in the paper, articles in the media and invitations by friends.
They wanted to get involved in a new community or they overheard someone talking about a need or they just wanted to be active.
Some wanted to repay a perceived debt to society and others took up volunteer work as part of a major reassessment of their lives and priorities.
They came looking for a better balance in their lives, a learning experience, something to do with their time after being laid off work or something to add to their skills and their resumes.
A good number had a vested interest in the organization where they were helping out. This might be a friend or relative with a disability or a disease or the expectation that they themselves might someday need the service.
Fears and anxieties
When they start out, volunteers are frequently unsure about themselves and their abilities and about what the organization will ask of them.
Some volunteers, particularly drivers, want to be sure they won't be out-of-pocket over their assignments:
Some volunteers had trouble getting started
Often volunteers have had to be extraordinarily persistent in order to offer their services to some organizations. One literacy volunteer tried three times to make contact before she finally got through to the organization.
Recruiters should know how the volunteer feels when, after applying, he or she goes into limbo for a matter of weeks or months while background checks are being done, or suitable assignments and matches worked out.
Many volunteers hear nothing back from the organization until this process is completed, and some mentioned feeling unwanted, or worse.
While most participants in these discussions waited it out, they worried that others might become lost to the organization during this period. They suggested there should be a phone call or some other kind of contact and reassurance while the paperwork is being processed.
In some cases, where the screening procedure was handled with sensitivity, volunteers did actually appreciate the care that was taken to ensure that the right people were selected. This was particularly the case in high-pressure positions where participants mentioned dealing with life-and-death issues and said that the rigorous screening increased their feeling of pride and accomplishment when they finally got started.
Volunteers do judge organizations in the early stages of a relationship to see if their own needs will be met. One enthusiastic volunteer found the following factors important:
FINDING THE RIGHT NICHE
Matching volunteers to the right assignment
It is important, in the initial stages of volunteering, to provide some counselling, training and guidance, even opportunities to experiment, so that the volunteer can find the right niche. Some of the participants did manage to make their place in an organization without much assistance, but most appreciate and want more support from the organization in the early stages and some follow-up afterwards.
Training and orientation
Training and orientation seemed to take the fear out of most volunteer assignments. Some participants had managed to make their place in the organization without much assistance, but most would have appreciated more help in the initial stages of volunteering.
In some cases, the tougher the training, the more some participants seemed to like it. They mentioned with relish such experiences as:
Reaping the Rewards
The rewards of finding the right niche are enormous both for the organization and the volunteer. You know things are going right when a palliative care volunteer talks about not wanting to go home at the end of the shift.
Committed volunteers are ones who have obtained the rewards they expected when they signed up and possibly a few unexpected ones as well. Volunteers who make comments like the one below keep coming back for more:
THE VOLUNTEER IMAGE
It became clear during these group interviews that volunteering could do with some image building, even among volunteers themselves. Although the participants clearly see that what they do is useful and valuable to society, many seem almost embarrassed about making their contributions known.
There is a self-depreciatory tendency among some volunteers to label their motives as selfish because they have gained personal rewards from volunteering. Some do not like to talk about their volunteer work for fear of being labelled a `do-gooder', or someone who is seeking praise. It is possible that recruiting new volunteers would be easier if volunteers had a more clearly defined place in the hierarchy of those who make good things happen in our society.
Who? Me a volunteer?
Some participants had done volunteer work for years without ever thinking to apply the label of volunteer to themselves. Others simply dislike the term. Certain stereotypes still exist, that volunteers are all people over 55, with lots of money and leisure time.
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Even among volunteers themselves, the stereotype of the well- to-do lady of leisure or retiree helping the less fortunate still exists:
A number of participants said they rarely discussed their volunteer work with friends or acquaintances as they are afraid of being considered `holier than thou'.
People who do talk about their volunteer efforts are often met with incomprehension:
Some comments from others suggested society as a whole undervalues the volunteer contribution:
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One person suggested that others might feel guilty about not volunteering if she talked a lot about her experiences. Others seemed to think that a bit of guilt on the part of non-volunteers might not be such a bad idea.
A bargain for society
In their own minds, volunteers do know what their contribution is worth.
They ascribe positive traits to themselves: giving, people- oriented, outgoing, busy, active, loving. Surprisingly, some considered themselves selfish, because they derive pleasure or some benefit from their work. It is almost as if they thought volunteering ought to be a sacrifice, doing good for the sake of doing good.
In terms of their own self-image, many volunteers see them selves as one camp in a two-camp world volunteers versus non-volunteers. Some people simply have the volunteer spirit. There was general agreement when one participant commented:
A similar thought developed in other groups:
BOARD AND COMMITTEE ISSUES
On the whole, participants in our study were not excited by the larger management issues of organizational goals, effectiveness, strategies, structures and facilities.
Most volunteers were content to do their assignments and leave larger organizational issues to others. It is possible that one reason for their reluctance is the sense of freedom that they value about their direct service work.
Of course, not all participants agreed. Some interpreted `lack of pressure' to imply `lack of commitment', others saw no difference between a volunteer job and a paid one.
Board and committee members: a degree of difference
Of all the groups, only the one composed of board and committee members was interested enough in the larger organizational issues to offer comments in that area.
They were likely to take a broader view of the organization. There tended to be more shoptalk in this group than in the others, about how different organizations dealt with various problems, about how there was never enough money to carry out all the work that needed to be done, about goals for volunteer involvement and about gender and age balances.
Life at the top a touch of nostalgia
It is interesting to note one significant factor. When talking about what they found most satisfying about volunteer work, most participants in this group reminisced about the past, when they were in direct-service positions.
Assignments on boards and committees usually give intellectual gratification, but not the more intense satisfaction of one-to-one tasks. And the larger the organization, the less contact there is at the board level with what the organization is really about. Some have retained hands-on volunteer assignments in the same or other organizations.
Of course, working on boards of directors does provide its own gratification. Participants appreciated staff support and larger organizational gatherings such as `honours' nights and volunteer appreciation events. There was some satisfaction in helping to solve organizational problems.
One participant had the opportunity to speak about her organization to a group of 300 people.
Two discoveries of particular interest emerged from this study. The first is that volunteers do make good recruiters. There were a number of stories of informal recruitment of friends, family and even strangers.
There were only a few stories, however, of volunteers being asked to take part in formal recruitment campaigns. And this seems a shame. Nobody knows the job better than the person doing it, and most would like the opportunity to tell of the work they do. In some cases a reticence holds them back. They are afraid people might consider them boastful. They feel that society is a little baffled by them, and a little condescending.
They know the value of the work they do, however, and their stories are compelling and ought to be heard.
The second discovery is that volunteers are the children of volunteers.
Recruiting new volunteers doesn't just fill a present need, it's an investment in our future communities.
Although the participants' experiences were mainly happy ones, they were able to identify some things that made them frustrated and angry.
They felt some organizations fail to give enough funds and support to their volunteer programs. They saved their real anger, however, for a recessionary economy and government cut-backs that allowed good programs to be cut.
Participants were aware of the competitive nature of volunteer recruitment and support. Programs that offered achievement and room for personal growth and a caring support system were clearly the winners in their eyes. Other organizations, they advised, would simply have to try harder.
Participants in the Study
Group 1 Canvassers and fundraisers
Group 2 One-to-One
Group 3 Life Skills and Literacy
Drivers and Escorts
Board and Committee Members
© Volunteer Centre Ottawa-Carleton
256 King Edward Avenue
New edition published by
Voluntary Action Directorate
Multiculturalism and Citizenship Canada
Researcher: Indra S. Ancans
Editor: Sue Pike
Cover design:Douglas McKercher
Cover illustration: Volunteer recruiting poster depicting Lord Kitchener, painted by Alfred Leete, 1914. (Imperial War Museum)
This was one of the most effective and widely imitated volunteer recruitment posters ever.
Cette publication est également disponible en français sous le titre de Pourquoi les gens font du bénévolat.