A Volunteer’s Buffet

volunteers buffet

I recommend spreading out a volunteer’s buffet.

No; I’m not completely out to lunch (pun intended!). Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard a lot of people expressing frustration about the “lack of volunteers”. Personally, I don’t think that people are volunteering any less. I believe that they are just demanding more flexibility in their volunteering experience.

Back to the volunteer’s buffet.

Think about your volunteer program as a restaurant. In traditional restaurants, people come in, choose something off the menu of what’s available, and it gets served to them in the way and in the amounts that the restaurant decides.

Then someone had a different idea. What if, they thought, we let people choose exactly what they want and in the amounts that they prefer. Rather than a 6 ounce steak, a scoop of mashed potatoes and a spoonful of mixed vegetables, they could pick four meatballs, half a scoop of mashed potatoes, a few french fries and an apple. Or a slice of vegetarian lasagna, a green salad, and ….  Well, you know how a buffet works!

Historically, volunteer programs have been set up in the same way as traditional restaurants. A person comes in, picks a role from the list of positions available, and fills that role in the way and with the time commitment that the organization specifies.

Unfortunately, in today’s environment, that’s not what most people want.

I’ve written in the past about the trend toward micro-volunteering. At the time, I focused on younger volunteers. I am seeing, however, that the desire for more flexibility and choice crosses generational boundaries. Just about everyone wants to be able to decide what and how much they want to do, based on their situation in that particular week. Last week George wanted to get out there and help clean up a salmon stream all morning. This week, his hip’s bothering him and his grandkids are coming over, so he’d rather do some admin work for an hour. A volunteer’s buffet would solve for this.

When organizations insist that volunteers “stay in their lane”, they end up driving people away.

I get it. A volunteer’s buffet is a lot harder to manage, because there aren’t set roles and times. Then again, it was a lot harder for buffet restaurants to know how much and what kinds of food to order to keep the buffet stocked. And yet they not only managed, they thrived.

Part of it came through trial and error. They learned over time what foods people were more likely to choose and in what quantities. They learned that certain foods were more popular in the summer than the winter. And they kept things creative and fun by bringing in small amounts of new foods to see if they were popular.

You can do the same with your program. You probably already know which roles are the more popular ones, and which tasks in those roles. Break your roles down into specific tasks and offer them as individual selections, rather than as a complete package. If there are tasks that no one wants to volunteer for, then either see what can be done to make them more appealing, or assign those to staff. Now and again, add a new task to see if it’s popular.

You don’t need to make a complete changeover.

Many restaurants that have a buffet also have a standard menu. If you have tasks that require specific training or that need a certain level of experience, you can keep those in standard roles. After all, there are people who would rather choose off the menu than go to the buffet! It’s when you offer both options that you attract more people.

Give it some thought. Start small. Look at your roles and decide which one or two could be easily broken up into a list of bite-sized tasks that volunteers can choose from. Post the list where people walking in can see it, and they can claim the one (or two, or more) that they’re interested in.

Once you start, you will be able to develop the systems and processes that work best for your organization.

Try it. I suspect that, once you get things going, you’ll find that there are a lot more volunteers out there than you thought.

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