Why “Giving Back” Isn’t What You Need From Volunteers

Having volunteers is great, but you need more than people who are looking for a sense of purpose. Are you setting the right standards for them?

What’s your volunteer problem?

The answer is likely different for every association. Too few people raising their hand, or too many. Gaps in the places where you really need help. Lack of engagement, or lack of the kind of engagement you need to get important work done. Regardless of the problem, large or small, it pretty much goes without saying that you have one. (If not, drop me a line and let me know how you’re pulling it off.)

Associations need to emphasize what it is they need done ahead of the personal satisfaction volunteers may get out of the experience.

Last week, Taproot Foundation founder Aaron Hurst pointed to an underlying issue in volunteering that speaks to the problems associations may struggle with: In an essay for the New York Times, he wrote that many volunteers are doing so because they lack a sense of purpose in their own work. On the surface this doesn’t seem like a problem—we like people who want a sense of purpose, right?

Except that a volunteer’s need for “purpose” may not jibe with the task you need done. You can be awash in volunteers who aren’t filling gaps but still require care and feeding from staff. As one nonprofit executive told Hurst, “If I get another volunteer I’m going to go out of business.”

The “I want to do good” or “I want to find a purpose” instinct is likely more pronounced in the charitable nonprofit world than at associations. But the same issues are at play in both communities. According to ASAE’s Decision to Volunteer survey, the leading motivation for volunteers at associations is “values”—that is, the sense of doing good. Similarly, the most common source of satisfaction among association volunteers is “giving back to their professional field.”

Hurst’s concern is that such motivations may speak to people being unsatisfied in their jobs—and bringing that dissatisfaction to a nonprofit. “We cannot meet this demand [for meaning at work] by looking to ’causes’ as the primary driver in our careers and place the burden on nonprofits to fulfill this need,” he writes.

From the board to task forces and subcommittees, engaged volunteers who do valuable work will only show up if you—that is, the association’s leadership—set a standard for what engagement and valuable work is. Short of paying volunteers, associations need to emphasize what it is they need done ahead of the personal satisfaction volunteers may get out of the experience. This isn’t an either/or proposition. But both parts of it are necessary, and when they’re in sync, an association can get an engaged group of people doing important things.

There are signs that associations are moving away from the committee-based form of volunteering, filled with busywork, that may make volunteers feel like they’ve “given back” but do only so much for the organization. Associations that craft ad hoc-style opportunities will attract people who want to work on a particular issue that captures their interests and helps the association too. And micro-volunteering opportunities can help give volunteers a sense of ownership while ensuring that the association is getting practical things done.

I don’t think Hurst was trying to be a killjoy in the nonprofit community by saying that many people who volunteer shouldn’t—or that they’d be better off trying to get that sense of meaning at their day jobs. But he raises the important point that successful volunteer recruitment involves more than just filling seats with people who have certain qualifications. It’s about setting a tone of doing productive work and establishing clear expectations. It’s a good thing to have people knocking on your door saying they want to “give back.” But make clear to them what it is you expect them to give.

How has your association encouraged top-notch volunteers to take part? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!