Put meaning in volunteering

Managing Volunteers / Friday, March 28th, 2014

I was reading a great blog post by Donald Miller the other day about making ordinary life more meaningful. Actually, it made me question my own volunteer experiences.

My volunteering has almost always been comprised of fairly mundane tasks: data entry, cleaning, watching children, etc. Yet some experiences have felt inexplicably more meaningful than others. Some days I went home wondering why I bothered while others I found myself smiling on the drive home, feeling like I had been part of something amazing.

Why? The tasks didn’t necessarily change, why did my sense of experience?  The two steps below will help any nonprofit answer that highly-held volunteer question.

Step 1: Ask what do volunteers want?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was most satisfied when my core motivators had been met. Motivation is what drives us, moves us and is how we get our kicks. I’ve found some great resources, brilliant books and TED talks, but my bottom line conclusion is this:

Degree of meaning perceived is directly correlated to motivational factors.

In other words, an experience will feel meaningful to me to the extent that it hits my motivational sweet spot, if it plays to my interests or values.

Kathy Martinson, Senior Director of Community Engagement at United Way of Dane County, created a fantastic volunteer motivational toolbox including great motivational assessments and a volunteer engagement checklist. These resources center on McClelland’s three types of social motivators:

1. Achievement
2. Influence
3. Affiliation (Connection)

Bottom line: it’s worth figuring out what motivates the people you enlist. As profoundly simple as it is, when you figure out what motivates people, you figure how to motivate them.

Step 2: Maximize the Experience

  • Volunteering needs to be easy Nothing dilutes a meaningful experience more than unnecessary frustrations and miscommunications. There are several practical ways to avoid hassle. Case in point, it was volunteer frustration that spurred VolunteerMark’s creation. Use management software to take care of the comprehensive details in regards to volunteer scheduling, communicating and reporting.
  • Customize the Experience Help your volunteers tailor their service according to their interests and skills. Implement interest-cause-match software or utilize old-school interest inventory. The goal is to put your volunteers where they want to be.
  • Consider Skills-Based Volunteering Traditional volunteer recruiting is like throwing out a grenade, the focus is quantity not quality. Skills-based recruiting is like hunting with a sniper rifle — specific targets. Volunteers are asked to donate their specific expertise rather than generic service. It’s a trend especially popular with Baby Boomers, who believe that sharing honed skills is a lot more meaningful than feeling like an intern asked to make coffee.

It’s easy to say that people don’t volunteer because they just don’t care anymore.

“When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.” psychologist Viktor Frankl said.

It’s a lot harder to admit that people just might not know where to find meaning. Our job, as nonprofits and NGOs, is simply to extend an invitation.

– Written by Anna Spady