When Volunteer Values are Different

values are different

I’m on the Board of Directors for a therapeutic riding association. We get a ton of volunteers, but there’s a problem, because their values are different than the organizations. The volunteers all care deeply about the horses. The people we serve are just there. Nice enough, but not why they volunteer. They volunteer to be around the horses.

It frustrates the executive director, because her focus is all on the clients. She loves the horses, too, of course, but that’s not why she’s there. The horses are the means the organization uses to help the clients. It drives her crazy that the volunteers have completely different values than the organization.

Ever have a problem where your volunteers’ values are different from your organization’s? Do you ever have the feeling that the reason they are there has little or nothing to do with the reason the organization exists?

It can be challenging.

We don’t want to turn away willing volunteers, but we do want those whose beliefs align with our mission and values. For a couple of reasons.

First, if they don’t care about the cause, they won’t stick around. If the only reason someone volunteers to cook at your soup kitchen is so that they can get credits for their application to a chef’s course, they won’t keep coming after their application is accepted. They have to also care about the people whom they are feeding.

If a volunteer’s focus is on a side benefit, they may only want to work in specific areas. Many of the riding association’s volunteers only want to do jobs that interact directly with the horses, and avoid any other tasks. I’ve had a client who put on a large event, and had six different people volunteer only if they could work with the keynote speaker. How frustrating is that?!?

I’ve spoken with a local ski patrol organization. They have a massive problem with people volunteering to be on the patrol, taking all the (extensive!) training, getting their ski pass – and then never showing up for a shift. They wanted the training and the pass, but didn’t care at all about rescuing people. Huge waste of time and resources.

So, what can you do when your volunteers’ values are different from yours?

Start with making sure that you demonstrate your values in everything you do. For example, the riding association’s website and social media posts were all about the horses. There was very little about the clients. The volunteer application form asked about their experience and skill with horses, not about their experience and skill with people of diverse abilities. When we started changing that, we saw a change in who volunteered. Make sure your public profile matches your focus, and specifically ask applicants about their beliefs and values around your cause.

Next, look at the tasks associated with each volunteer role. Ensure that all roles have a balance between fun or popular tasks and ones that are less popular or harder to fill. Every role should have a few of each, so that you don’t have a surfeit of volunteers wanting to do one thing, and no one at all volunteering for another. Perhaps all six volunteers could have worked with the keynote speaker in different ways (one picks him up from the airport, another helps with selling his books, etc), and still be useful in other parts of the event.

Finally, tie the benefits to accomplished tasks. Have your volunteers “prove” their commitment before you provide them with all the benefits. My suggestion to the ski patrol was to have their volunteers perform some administrative shifts before the training, and then to provide a monthly ski pass that would be renewed so long as they filled X number of shifts. People who applied to volunteer would then be more likely to have strong values around helping others, and be less likely to try to take advantage of the program.

When volunteers values are different, problems occur.

For our organizations to make a real impact, we need to have volunteers who truly believe in the importance of what we do. By ensuring that your volunteer program is set up in such a way that you attract those who do, you will save yourself time and frustration, and your mission will advance that much faster.

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