“It is when you have done your work honestly, when you have contributed your share to the common fund that you begin to live.” — Eugene V. Debs
Recently, I had a friend, and former colleague, ask me if I had ever written about “commitment.” He was asking primarily because he was struggling with the volunteer organization he was helping with, and what appeared to be a lack of commitment, or apathy. I wrote a lot about volunteerism and commitment in the late 90’s until about 2005, but decided it needed a ‘refresh.’
One of the guiding principles I grew up with was ‘giving back.’ It didn’t matter what you did, but I was expected to volunteer a portion of my time for ‘a worthy cause.’ As I grew into my profession I found that I enjoyed donating part of my time toward the professional development of myself and others. That continued throughout my professional career. There was also some volunteer time at church, and within the community. I found that these activities benefitted me as much or more than the organizations I served.
While I have noticed a shift in what motivates volunteers, I am not willing to say it is a lack of commitment. When I look closer I see more competition for a person’s time. Granted, some of that competition comes in the form of entertainment, social media, etc. We have different/additional ways of ‘filling’ our time. How we prioritize that time will determine a lot in how, or if, we volunteer.
Because the reasons Millennials commit to volunteer may look different from the Boomers, we may be quick to label the Millennials as ‘disinterested’ or ‘lazy’ about giving back. A little deeper dive reveals that is not the case. What I do see as different is that they want to know “what’s in it for me?” Part of the reason they are asking these questions is because many are highly committed people who want to make sure they are volunteering with an organization that has other highly committed people.
They want to know is there a ‘pay off’ for volunteering? It’s not a pay off in dollars, but is there a pay off in some value. One of the best examples of this is my wife’s Master Gardner group. To earn the “Master Gardner Designation” you must have 50 volunteer hours in the first year after you complete your course work (which is an hour a week for 15 weeks). There is also 25 hours/year every year thereafter. The ‘pay off’ is in earning the “Master Gardner Designation.” In the Master Gardner case, they are willing to put out front what the commitment looks like, and have created a special ‘fraternity’ of people that value the work in getting the designation, and value the work in helping others grow and enjoy a wide variety of flowers and plants.
The four professional associations I belonged to during my professional career had various ‘designations’ you could earn. Each offered some increased professional stature. Whether that was sufficient to drive motivation and volunteering is difficult to say. My own observation is that in and of itself those designations didn’t universally move the volunteer needle of the membership for those organizations.
What did universally move the needle was the education provided. Each organization’s educational programming demonstrated its value by the quality of the program, which drove the attendance. The better the organization’s ability to enlist committed volunteers in creating education, and several other needs of the association, the greater the pay off.
One of the other tangible pay off’s was the network of people that strengthened my knowledge and created a wonderful problem-solving resource. It also provided a common ground for social connections. A handful of these people became life-long friends.
Another ‘pay off’ for the volunteers relates to whether there is a ‘feel good’ factor. Does the organization connect some of the volunteering to what the organization does and how it is contributing to its intended purpose? Are there stories that go with that? I always enjoyed talking to volunteers to find out what they were really enjoying about their experience, what was feeding their motivation, and what wasn’t. Those stories were often keys to what we were doing right, and whether there were opportunities to do better.
While I can have ‘boomer-type’ reactions to some of what I see in Millennials, if I’m willing to not make assumptions, and look a little deeper, I often find people who are very committed. That commitment includes volunteering for more than one organization. When I talked to them, their commitment comes from a sense of purpose, from a sense of wanting to be more intentional in their lives.
I am always for the individual introspection that helps us uncover our purpose, and a sense of how we wish to engage others. This ‘self-discovery’ helps us understand our commitment to helping. Where can I spend time that will make a difference and be rewarded? Where does the ‘pay off’ work for me and for the organization?
Experience tells me that it is helpful for the volunteer organization to also spend time in collective introspection. Is our mission something that excites us, and will excite others? Do we think of our volunteers as people who ‘owe us,’ or do we think of them as partners in a common goal? Do we understand their needs and desires for volunteering with us? What would it take to have a highly committed culture? The answer may be less about ‘them’ and more about ‘us.’ Perhaps if we require more and give more we will get more from our volunteers.
To a better you…