Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Where do Volunteers Come From?

In the United States,  there's lots of conversation in non-profit organizations around volunteers--and particularly about how hard it is to recruit volunteers.  Over the last two weeks in Ukraine, I've come across some volunteers that I think demonstrate some important lessons we may have forgotten. 

At the top of this post is a photo of the residents of Ak Mechet, a Crimean Tatar settlement outside Simferopol,  working, as volunteers, to repair their badly potholed (driving on it sort of felt like riding the waves) road.  This was an entirely volunteer effort, organized by Neshet, a builder, who brought clean fill out from a building he was demolishing, and recruited volunteers.  It happened informally, through word of mouth,  people saw people working and came out, even those without cars, said Neshet's teenage son, Serdar.  These were really hot days, and these men worked really hard on something that is rightly the responsibility of city government.

I talked with an American friend living in Ak Mechet about why,  particularly when volunteering is still a relatively new Ukrainian concept in its post-Soviet independence.  She thought it was because the Crimean Tatars, deported to Uzbekistan by Stalin have had to work together as a community just to survive.  After independence, hundreds of thousands of Crimean Tatars made the decision to return to their homeland and have made lives and communities here.   So for these residents of Ak Mechet,  repairing the road was one more step.
And here's Svetlana and her family in Kyiv.  As we walked upstairs in her bloc apartment, she said she was working to organize her neighbors to clean and paint the hallway--it was taking a long time, but she was determined.  Svetlana and her husband had spent a bit of time in the US and she appreciated the volunteer work undertaken by many there.  As a result, she, like Neshet, was working to make her corner of the world a better place.

In Donetsk, we met Ania, who served as one of our volunteer interpreters.  She was a child psychologist in her 20s and she volunteered because she thought it was an important way to gain different perspectives--to understand more about children and families and to appreciate different points of view.

And so Neshet, Svetlana, and Ania helped reinforce to me some important points about  recruiting and retaining volunteers:
  • Have volunteer jobs that matter.  I've certainly asked more than my share of volunteers to spend a day sticking on mailing labels.  But consider what kinds of really meaningful work you can ask volunteers to do.  I think all of us increasingly want to have meaningful lives, including our volunteer efforts (and if you can't make it meaningful, at least make it fun!)
  • Be flexible about choices.  In all of these cases,  the volunteer decided what was important.   That doesn't work everywhere, and I know volunteers often want to do things that aren't appropriate in a museum sense.  But provide volunteers, as you can, with some level of decision-making power.
  • Expanding a world view.  Encourage volunteers to think about how volunteering can expand their world view--and then recognize and celebrate those volunteers.
None of these lessons are earth-shattering, but increasingly I find that the time I spend in Ukraine gives me time not only to understand Ukraine, but to also reflect on my work in the United States.  It's been my experience that people whose parents volunteer are more likely to volunteer themselves.  As I think about Neshet, Svetlana and Ania,  I can see their efforts not only benefitting their communities and neighborhoods now, but resounding down the generations.

And speaking of volunteers, a big shout-out to our tremendous volunteer translators on this trip.  You've all been incredible!


Jamie said...

Reading these observations makes me wonder if we in the US create unnecessary barriers to volunteering. How many of us recruit by word of mouth, as the examples here did, openly welcoming whomever can assist? I know when I had to do volunteer work for school years ago I barely had any idea how to find somewhere I could volunteer, let alone any realization of many opportunities there were.

How many of us require forms or orientations to get started because our insurance policies and lawyers say they're necessary for CYA? There were no such roadblocks in Ukraine and it appears to have made a significant difference.

Bob Beatty said...

Thanks for this Linda. I am a huge advocate of your first point, volunteer jobs that matter. I've done this in several capacities both at a local history museum, in community work, and now at AASLH through the affinity group model. This engages volunteers in a meaningful way and creates affinity not only for their individual cause but also for the institution as a whole.

I wish that the field would adapt this idea/model on a more widespread basis because I think it'd help solve issues of engagement and relevance and later membership and donations.

I have a full-blown talk I give on this but here are some of the hints I offer:

Always be explicit about museum’s goals for the committee/affinity group and resources.

Find a strong chair who buys into that vision and get out of the way and let the volunteers create the strategies to accomplish the task.

And remember that volunteers provide their talent and expertise, let them use them for something other than stuffing envelopes or making copies.

Ok, that's enough for now :) Thanks for the food for thought.

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Here's a word I've just come across: micro-volunteering. Like micro-philanthropy, the underlying premise is that many people nibbling away at a project can have as much impact as a few people taking big bites. As you mention, Linda, every institution needs to figure out what projects require big bites, sustained bites, and micro bites, but the point is that we need to offer all types of bites, probably all the time, in order to encourage all types of volunteerism.

I think there is something to be said for the contributions volunteers can make in half an hour as opposed to half or full-day stints.