How We Define Community Affects Volunteering

define community

How do you define community?

In my work, I’ve had the pleasure of watching how volunteering can transform our communities. It not only helps the causes we care about, it personally helps every volunteer by providing them with a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

I have realized, though, that how we define “community” has a profound effect on volunteering. Not only in who volunteers where and how, but even in the feelings of well-being that come from volunteering.

Traditionally, a person’s community was defined as the geographical area that they were raised or lived in. Now, it’s less confined. More and more, we define our communities as the people who have the same interests, beliefs and values that we have, whether they live on the next block or on the other side of the world. We may never have physically met the people who are important to our communities.

Nor do we often consider ourselves as belonging to only one community. We can belong to a community at work, a community at the gym, our extended family and so on.

From a volunteering point of view, understanding this change in definition and multiplicity is vital.

We tend to volunteer for those causes that are important to our communities.

Take, for example, my 20 year old son Eric. He’s a construction worker, plays heavy metal guitar, likes online gaming, has a girlfriend, and he mountain bikes in the summer. Just considering these, he has five different communities that he cares about. The fact that the suburb we live in desperately needs people to shovel seniors’ driveways doesn’t interest him in the least. But he volunteered for weeks to help a group build a mountain bike trail on the other side of the city. He volunteered to teach his girlfriend’s nephew in the UK how to play guitar. He volunteered at an online gaming event (sorry, I don’t know the details – that’s not my community!).

If Eric had been pressured somehow into helping out shoveling driveways, he would have seen it as a chore and, no matter how important the task, he wouldn’t have gotten any intrinsic satisfaction from it.

Eric is just one example. If you look at your own communities, you will probably find the same thing.

And we, as leaders of volunteers, need to understand how this shift affects volunteering.

If we, as we have traditionally done, focus our recruitment of volunteers in our local geographic communities, we shrink our potential pool of volunteers by an unbelievable amount. Too often, even when we try to find remote volunteers, we limit them to certain computer-based tasks. And we don’t need to!

My favourite story about this is of a local Indian cultural centre who had a lot of difficulty finding an experienced volunteer to teach traditional dance. Until they tapped into the international dance community and found a highly-talented teacher who just happened to live in India!

But it’s not just a matter of recruiting virtual volunteers.

If we develop a good understanding of what community or communities our organization belongs to, we can more easily find others who belong to that community, or to adjacent ones.

Say you’re a street outreach organization. What communities would you belong to, or touch? The street community itself, of course. The health community. Policing. Perhaps a religious community. The street artist community. And so on. The people in these communities are people who care about your cause. Who may have had experience with homelessness or addiction issues themselves, or who have seen the impact of it on others. People who want to see things improve.

And who better to recruit volunteers from? Rather than trying to recruit everyone and anyone, focus on those people in your communities, not just your neighbourhood.

The larger our world grows, and the more interconnected it becomes, the more our definition of community changes.

People see or care less about what is happening in their physical locations. This can be a challenge for organizations who still depend on recruiting volunteers from people who define community as their physical location.

If, instead, you define your organization’s community as the people who care about what you care about, you can focus your recruitment (and fundraising!) efforts toward those who are more likely to step up and help. Whether those people are in the next building or the next country.

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