Investing in Volunteers

investing in volunteers

We haven’t been investing in volunteers. And it shows.

Volunteer programs are like the foundations of a house. They are put into place and then hidden away, ignored, neglected. Until they start to crumble. Then that lovely house that they support (read: our community!) starts to break up. Cracks appear in the walls; the floors start to slope; the windows break. And the cold weather starts coming in.

That’s when people start scrambling.

First they try to patch the walls and replace the windows, but obviously that doesn’t last long. Then they try to “Band-Aid” the foundations; shore them up a bit. They don’t want to do a proper rehabilitation job on it; that’s time consuming and expensive. They’d rather spend money on the things that everyone sees, like carpets and appliances.

Besides, most people don’t know how to fix a foundation properly, and professionals are expensive. It’s easier to just try and patch things up themselves. This, of course, just delays the inevitable. Finally, they shrug their shoulders and say that “it’s complex issue”.

But investing in volunteers makes a huge difference.

People, even those in the social impact sector, forget that investing the time and money to maintain and improve our volunteer programs will keep everything else in our communities strong and stable. Think about some of the serious social issues that we’re facing right now. Many of them may have been a lot less serious if effort had been put into our volunteer programs right from the beginning.

And yet we still see organizations pulling money and staff from the volunteer programs to give to other program areas. It’s like taking money from maintaining that house foundation and putting it into new drywall because the walls are cracked.

Okay. Enough complaining. What can we do about it?

I think the key to getting people to start investing in volunteers is education.

Organizations, governments, and the general public need to be constantly reminded of the vital role volunteers play in the safety, well-being and smooth running of our communities. The better they understand, the more likely it is that they will give more than just lip service to our volunteer programs. We need to find ways to start measuring volunteers’ impact, not just their hours. According to Peter Drucker, “what’s measured improves”. And gets invested in.

How many formerly homeless are off the streets? How many salmon streams are now rehabilitated? How many animals have been adopted? Tie those results directly to the volunteer program. What would the organization’s or the project’s success rate be if volunteers weren’t involved? We need to convince everyone to start investing in volunteers. Investing money; investing time and investing thought. To do that, we need to regularly show people the difference our programs make.

I’d like to put a challenge out there.

Pick one or more (or all!) of the following items and act. We’ve talked enough.

  • Form a group and lobby governments and funding sources for more money to be put directly into volunteer programs.
  • Think of and share different ways to measure impact, and keep track of the impact volunteers are making in your organization.
  • Speak to your Board and executives at least once a year about the difference volunteers make and what you need to help them make an even bigger difference.
  • Explain to everyone who will listen that volunteers aren’t free, and investing in volunteers equals investing in their community. Explain it often enough that people know what you’re going to say before you open your mouth!

We leaders of volunteers have a long way to go. But it’s not hopeless. We are an articulate, passionate and dedicated group of leaders. If we start acting, we can change the world – one investor at a time!

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