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Four Stages to Engaging Volunteers of the Future

by Lee George, Volunteer Manager of the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota; Member, Invisible Force Collaborative

Take a moment to think about the word volunteer. What images come to your mind? Stuffing envelopes? Participating in phone-a-thons? Serving someone mashed potatoes? For many of us, our volunteering has been defined by the missions of the organizations with which we have been involved. We participate as a volunteer for altruistic reasons but most of us also want the experience to be meaningful. Often that desire is not fulfilled. What if I told you that volunteering can be different?

Now, take a moment and think about what gets you really excited. What images come to mind? Helping a neighbor garden? Discussing philosophy? Organizing groups of people around a common goal? Creating graphic design? Educating children? A place for your interests exists in the world of volunteering, and you can live out your passion.

A paradigm shift is occurring in the world of volunteering. Organizations are moving away from dictating what type of impact you will have on your community to allowing you to choose how you want to make an impact. Agencies are beginning to accommodate individuals’ interests and passions.

Whether nonprofit, for-profit, or governmental, organizations need to empower individuals and provide a forum where people can make an impact on their communities. While baby boomers may have been the catalyst for the shift, organizations should apply the model to all potential volunteers. If agencies are successful in this shift, volunteerism will evolve to a higher level.

The effort required of organizations to make this paradigm shift is colossal. Staff can feel incredibly overwhelmed when thinking about making the change. Many volunteers and volunteer managers have limited resources, including limited physical capacity, inadequate funds, and lack of time. If agencies and volunteers realize that this shift goes beyond baby boomers to all generations and that staff does not have to do it alone, agencies and volunteers can make progress towards this new paradigm.

Four stages will occur during this paradigm shift:

Discovery - Identify the pillars of the new paradigm.

  • Individuals. Volunteers must mobilize to develop projects outside of organizations that reflect the ways they want to make an impact and must find effective techniques to persuade organizations to implement the projects.
  • Organizations. Organizations must change how they collaborate with volunteers and must be receptive to the passions of individuals.
  • Infrastructure. Organizations and communities must develop infrastructure to support and guide efforts.Policy. Governments and organizations must create policies that provide incentives for service.
  • Policy. Governments and organizations must create policies that provide for service.

Best Practices. Identify organizations that are implementing best practices for each pillar of the new volunteer paradigm.

Support. Identify the support that organizations need to continue implementing best practices.

Initiation. Identify missing elements and find people who will fill the void.

If nonprofit, for-profit and independent community members collaborate to work through these four stages, the re-imaging of volunteerism can happen.

How will you play a part in this paradigm shift? Many groups are striving toward the creation of a new type of volunteerism, so help is available. The four-stage model gives you a perspective on the direction you should take, whether you are a volunteer, a nonprofit or for-profit organization, or a governmental agency. If you are already engaged in this paradigm shift, our communities need you to continue. If you are not yet involved, we need your help to make the shift a reality.

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