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Volunteer Engagement Outside the Box

Holly Daniels | Published on 1/13/2022
What else is possible if we expand our understanding?

I’ve been busy learning since I became MAVA’s new Greater Minnesota Program Manager, in October. And I’m noticing ways we put volunteer engagement inside a box.

In 2022, there are four boxes I want to talk to people about, so others can notice them too, break out, and serve people and communities more effectively.

Box #1: “When people want to volunteer, they go to organizations.” 

This seemed very true at my last position as a volunteer coordinator. But it’s not, and many of us are stuck in this box.

The buzz at MAVA during my first week was about Informal Volunteerism. My supervisor, Karmit Bulman, shared with me that 70 percent of people who volunteer, do so informally, meaning they do not volunteer through organizations. This looks like neighbors helping neighbors. People showing up for their community, with or without being asked. 

My job is to connect with volunteer engagement leaders, and what I’m hearing from people across the state is that there is a massive volunteer shortage. 

In most cases, the volunteers that organizations used to depend on are the older folks who are most vulnerable to COVID-19. These volunteers are unable or afraid to return to the service that used to mean so much to them. In the very worst cases, they are passing away and there is no fresh cohort of volunteers coming in behind them. 

I wonder if there is a necessary perspective shift that needs to happen in this new year: Just because people are not coming to you to volunteer, does not mean they don’t want to help. It doesn’t mean younger folks don’t care about their community. 

So, of the people who volunteer, why are 70 percent of them not joining you? Let’s consider the hurdles. Let’s think outside the box and consider new and more inclusive volunteer engagement strategies. 

Box #2: “People who manage volunteers are paid employees.”

Yes, many people who manage volunteers do so as part of their job. But many people who manage volunteers are also volunteers! 

I put my foot in my mouth recently as a breakout room facilitator during a MAVA event. I asked people to share, “Where do you work? What is your job?”

And one of the participants said they were a volunteer who founded a volunteer-led group.

I thanked them for participating and apologized for my job-centric language (note to self: talk about roles, not jobs) but it was really difficult for me to expand my perspective and think outside the box: Volunteer engagement resources are not just for organizations. 

Why is this such a shift for me? It makes perfect sense that passionate people would unify around a shared mission. And of course, volunteers are attracted to passionate people with a mission! I imagine these folks often find each other thanks to a shared neighborhood, religion, ethnicity, as well as their passion to help.

Here’s a question I need to ask myself: In 2022, how can my understanding of volunteer engagement be elevated and expanded if I remove it from the box of organizations with paid employees? 

Here’s a challenge for volunteer engagement leaders: Find out if there are any groups like this in your community. Ask them: “How can we collaborate?” (Tip: Avoid asking them: “How can we support you?” Which assumes you hold the expertise and power).

Box #3: “There is one right way to engage volunteers.”

Nope! My takeaway from MAVA’s 2021 Dismantling Inequities Conference was that white supremacy culture affects all people and organizations. And actually “one right way” is one marker of white supremacy culture, along with others like perfectionism and urgency. Lisa Joyslin wrote an article on this, titled “Recognizing Racism in Volunteer Engagement.”

Volunteer engagement training teaches organizations how to build a volunteer program. And it seems like the next necessary step is to examine what you’ve built. Especially if your volunteer pool is not as diverse as you intended. 

At the Conference, I was incredibly energized about a workshop by Girl Scouts River Valleys on White Supremacy Culture in Volunteer Policies. They told the story of having an outside group audit their many policies with a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens. The audit revealed their policies to be overly punitive and defensive. These policies did little to keep unacceptable behavior from happening, and instead turned people off and kept them from engaging. 

To purchase recordings from the December conference, check out this page!

In 2022 I challenge volunteer engagement leaders to start and join conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Perfectionism is not required of me in these conversations, only an invitation to ask, “Is there another way to engage volunteers?”

MAVA’s Affinity Groups, where we do just that! The next one is January 14th!

Box #4: “We’ll meet on Zoom until we can meet in person again.”

My role at MAVA is to reach out and meet with volunteer engagement leaders across Minnesota. (Sidenote: If you engage volunteers, I want to meet with you! Yes, YOU! You can set up a meeting with me here, and I’ll be delighted!)

I know Zoom is no substitute for meeting in person. I know that screens can exhaust us. BUT, I think Zoom is awesome. 

I can “meet” with people who live all over Minnesota without spending hundreds of dollars on gas, and wasting all day in a car! 

I also connect on Zoom with people is through District Council meetings. These are opportunities for volunteer engagement leaders to connect with others in their geographical region of Minnesota, to share opportunities, challenges, and support. Recently, the question was posed by a participant: “Why geographical?”

I think there’s definitely benefit to networking with people in your area, but there’s also benefit to showing up to a meeting whenever you need new ideas and connection, regardless of the region you live in.

If a physical room in a geographical location is a box, we have broken out of it. 

So in 2022 I will ask myself: How can Zoom enable MAVA to increase collaboration, increase support, build community, and create space for more conversations all over Minnesota and beyond?

I’m excited to see what happens!