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Volunteerpower News September 2003

Volunteer Power News  September 2003
Author: Thomas W. McKee
"Volunteer Power News" Monthly Newsletter
2003 Advantage Point Systems, Inc. Publishing

A warm welcome to all volunteer managers - those of you who recruit, motivate and mobilize volunteer workers. 

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This month I want to share with you how the 21st Century Volunteer is a very different person than the 20th Century Volunteer.  In our recruiting and managing the new volunteer, we have to change the rules of the game.

September Newsletter Content

       Who is the New Volunteer? They Don’t Look Like They Used To
       Ask Tom - How do we get beyond Internet Activism?

The 21
st Century Volunteer Isn't Like Your Father’s Oldsmobile

Who are the new volunteers?

Volunteers don’t look like they did yesterday.  Yesterday’s volunteer programs were designed for a different world.  And it worked great back then.   How has this changed?  
Volunteer managers that still operate like they did in the 20th century are the managers who keep asking these questions and making these statements:

       Where have all the volunteers gone?
       Why aren’t people as committed as they used to be?
       What is wrong with these young people?
       People are just too busy these days.
       If you want a job done well, hire it done.  Don’t ask for a volunteer.

Contrary to the above statements, there are plenty of volunteers in the 21st century who are ready and willing to get involved.  There is a whole new arena of “new volunteers” who will get involved and be committed to our organizations.   But they will become involved according to their rules, not ours.

In the early 20th century most volunteers were stay-at-home mothers or retired people.   Therefore, the volunteer system was a great system designed for the ideal volunteer of the mid-20th century who was basically a retired person or a woman who had plenty of extra time.   In the 50’s nearly all of the church volunteers and Sunday school teachers were women. In the latter half of the 20th century woman began to work outside the home.  The demographics of the typical American family changed from “Father knows Best” to “Murphy Brown the single professional parent.”  Volunteer managers were recruiting more and more single parents.   In the 90’s the percentage of families headed by a married couple dropped from 80% to 53% according to the U.S. census report.

Recruiting volunteers became more and more difficult because of the heavy demands on families and young professionals.  Technology, which was supposed to decrease our workload, has actually increased the expectations from our customers, our members and our employees.  We are never away from someone’s “to-do” list.  The words of the 70’s and 80’s, “I’m too busy” are repeated more today than ever. 

What is the state of volunteerism today?  According to Prof. Robert D. Putnam of Harvard University, participation in volunteer associations in the 90’s plunged by 30-50% since the mid-1960’s.  But others say there is a new trend.  This new trend is reversing statistics and in the first two years of the 21st century volunteerism has increased 14%, not counting volunteers in schools and education.   In the year 2002, 56% of Americans volunteer, and these volunteers are no longer just the retired or women who do not work.

Gen Xers and Active Senior Volunteers Demand Flexibility

One trend that is contributing to a greater number of volunteers is in the flexibility of an organization to work with the volunteer.   The Gen Xers and the active senior adults have something in common that they share in their volunteer roles.  What they have in common is their demand for flexibility.  Kim is a typical Gen X (35 years old) volunteer who is very involved in one association, her church, and the chair of the United Way campaign at her work.  However, each of her responsibilities is short-term and team-based.  She sent her open dates for meetings to her team chairperson and the chairperson set up the meetings according to the schedules of the volunteers.  Kim is use to “hi-tech” and does not want to waste time sitting in boring board meetings.  She often says,  “e-mail me what you want me to do and I’ll get it done.”   

Jim is a retired dentist and volunteers for the local chapter of the Rotary Club.  He was painting and cleaning up on an inner city project because he really cares about the problems of the inner city.  Jim and his wife Sue are traveling about six months of the year, but when they are home they are volunteering.    Jim would never volunteer to be on a board that required regular meetings.  Last year Jim and Sue spent six months working in an orphanage in Eastern Europe doing dental and construction work.

Char is a new board member at her church.  She is retired and she and her husband travel a great deal.  She is so excited to be on the board as an Elder; however, she announced at the first meeting that she had gone over her calendar and would make eleven of the twelve monthly meeting, but could not make the training retreat.  The pastor wanted her resignation because he felt that the training retreat was essential for all board members.  Char held her ground and asked to be given the material, tape the sessions and she would catch up.  Char is the new, retired, active volunteer who plays a lot of golf and travels.  She is gifted and wants to be involved.  If the board asks her to resign, they will loose a very active volunteer.

Alan is a busy professional who gets up at 4:30 a.m. and is at work by 5:45 a.m.  He often works until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m.  Once a month on Tuesday evening he makes sure he is at the monthly board meeting that starts with dinner at 6:00 p.m.  But at 10:00 p.m., he gets up and leaves the meeting he knows he has an early wake up call.  He feels that the board wastes so much time doing committee work and arguing over fine points of the minutes when they should be doing board work.  He finally told the chairman that he could not stay until 12:00 or 1:00 in the morning doing board work.  He would do his committee work, make sure his responsibility was fulfilled, but if the meeting was not over at 10:00 p.m., he would leave.  He does and many of the other board members are mad.  Alan is a new volunteer and if things don’t change, this board will loose a very talented and dedicated board member.

The 21st century calls for a greatly expanded definition of what it means to be a volunteer.   It calls for a new system.  Rather than always recruiting for very specific volunteers to fill pre-set roles, organizations are asking for an empowered new breed of volunteers to help them fulfill their mission.   But they are empowering the new volunteers to do it their way in their time schedule.  The new system needs to be flexible and able to customize the job for the volunteer.  Rather than always recruiting volunteers for pre-set slots, organizations will be asking this new, loosely defined breed of volunteers how they would like to become involved.

What is the profile of the new volunteer?

The new volunteer looks something like the following:

       The new volunteer is very busy - has many obligations and often is volunteering for multiple organizations.
       The new volunteer wants flexibility.
       The new volunteer thinks outside the box of the organization - new hi-tech ways to get the job done.
       The new volunteer will not tolerate incompetent volunteers - particularly committee chairpersons who don’t know how to lead a meeting.
       The new volunteer does not want to make a contribution.  The new volunteer wants to make a difference.


Ask Tom : How do we get beyond Internet Activism?

Hi Tom,

We are a new organization, and the majority of our members are techies. Our membership agrees that our issues are the most important issues facing America today - most believe our country to be in a crisis situation. But we are having difficulty getting these people mobilized to activism that goes beyond the Internet.

Currently, our membership and followers are in various Yahoo groups, online discussion boards, and websites. Their activism consists of forwarding the same news articles, information, reports, data, and ideas through a large circle of these online mediums. The information is great, but it never leaves "the circle."
In 3.5 weeks, we managed to get 500 people signed up for meetings in their cities across America, but attendance was low. Many people even RSVP'd for their meeting but did not show up. Most emailed the next day that something had come up, the meeting was too far, or some other excuse for missing the meeting (I didn't ask, they just emailed on their own).

We need to be involved in public awareness activities. How do we motivate techies who are largely depressed, anti-social, and maybe even unemployed to go out into their communities to get the word out? How do we get them off of the Internet and into action?
Dawn McCord Teo
Rescue American Jobs Foundation
"If there is no job, then there is no recovery."
America Jobs for Americans First!


Hi Dawn,

Wow, how exciting to start an organization to fulfill your passion.  But trying to transfer your passion to a group of volunteers is a huge task.

When I read your question, I was reminded of the problem of today's non-profit organization as illustrated by professional football.  Twenty-two players are on the field desperately in need of a rest and 80,000 fans are in the stands desperately in need of some exercise.  Thousands will talk about, yell and cheer, and even get people to join your organization, but the people who get involved in making a difference are a small percentage.

The problem with your members is not that they are depressed and anti-social.  The problem is that you are trying to start a movement with people who don't have to make a commitment.  It costs them nothing to join your organization--just the click of a mouse.  And with this kind of sign-up commitment, you get this kind of follow through.  To follow through on the football analogy, to be able to play the game, you must go through pre-season training camp.  Players hate preseason.

Make the stakes high for your organization--at least for your volunteer leaders.   Read my article "We have it all backwards" on changing the world with our volunteer leaders http://www.volunteerpower.com/articles/backwards.asp Then I suggest that you develop position charters for your leadership positions. http://www.volunteerpower.com/resources/charter.asp Without this kind of foundation, you are only building a discussion group for people who love to talk, not act.

I hope this helps.  Building an organization is not easy, but it is worth the effort.  



Is your organization part of a larger professional association, or a statewide, regional or national organization? Does that group have local, regional or national meetings and conferences? Would you like a Volunteer Power Session presented at one of those meetings?

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Thomas W. McKee
Volunteer Power

Tom McKee is a leading volunteer management speaker, trainer and consultant. You can reach Tom at (916) 987-0359 or e-mail him at tom@advantagepoint.com. Other articles and free resources are available at http://www.volunteerpower.com .