Are Happy Volunteers the Best Volunteers?

Recently, I had to complete the renewal paperwork for my Certification in Volunteer Administration…yes, they have one of those and I have proudly had mine since 2009. Here’s hoping that my renewal paperwork is accepted and I will have it for another 5 years. In the process I had to write a reflection on one of four questions/topics. I chose to answer the following:

What is something new or innovative you attempted in your organization or community related to volunteerism? What did you learn about yourself? What changed as a result of this experience?

My reflection is as follows:

When I was working at the local community non-profit in their volunteer center, we received many requests from companies wanting to do feel good volunteer projects. They wanted to do something in a day where they could see at the end of the day they made a difference in that space. This often had them painting a room at a school, landscaping for a nonprofit, or making sack lunches at their office to be handed out at the homeless drop in center. While all good things, were these actions really making an impact on the inequalities, injustices, and issues our community was facing? At the same time we as an organization were moving towards more impactful ways of serving the community and asking our partner (funded) agencies to do the same. I struggled standing in the gap between these two philosophies.

Trying to meet the desires of our potential volunteers and meet the needs in the community, we came up with an idea to do both. In partnership with a local high school in an underserved area of the city, we set up an opportunity for our volunteers to have hands on physical work projects in addition to putting on a resource fair for the community all in the same place on the same day. This allowed volunteers who were more comfortable with painting or landscaping to get a glimpse at other volunteer opportunities like reading to children, teaching financial literacy to parents, and performing basic health screenings. Some even caught the vision and stuck around to be a part of the resource fair, too. When the next large service day rolled around, we made sure to incorporate both a resource fair and physical work projects within the same community.

It is my opinion that volunteering shouldn’t always be easy. Sometimes as a volunteer manager I have felt the need to “dumb down” volunteer opportunities so volunteers are happy and will come back. Everyone loves a happy volunteer but is a happy volunteer doing the most good? If we are to solve our deepest societal ills then it’s going to be tough and sometimes heartbreaking. I also think when you stick with it, these are going to be the most rewarding volunteer opportunities: to see a kid you tutored who is reading below grade level finally graduate from high school and get accepted to college or to be present at the adoption of a child who you mentored because of their presence in the foster care system. Tutoring a child and being a court advocate for a child are not easy, but those are volunteer opportunities that have a proven track record of impact on the community long term.

I learned a lot about my desire for change and my belief that volunteerism is a major avenue for change through this experience. But I also learned that it is better to create a space where folks can see this for themselves than to force them into it. Of course there is always a place for the physical service project as there will always be schools that need a fresh coat of paint and elderly folks who need help with home repairs, but the chance to watch an executive who usually wears a suit and sits behind a desk all day sit down at the table with a community member, who has just gotten a bite to eat from the food trucks, to hear his story and the real needs of the community is priceless.

I would be interested in hearing what you think about this both from the perspective of a volunteer and from the perspective of those who manage volunteers, as I know I often have tunnel vision when I get passionate about a particular issue.