volunteerismAre You Curious About Australian Volunteerism?

Let’s face it, it’s getting harder and harder to engage a quality, committed volunteer support network. Society is evolving and volunteers are, too.  The approaches organizations used in the past to engage volunteers simply aren’t working anymore. Australian volunteerism is not immune to this problem, and we can learn a lot from the industry.

Consider these troubling trends:

While the volunteer rate declines, both social and government sector agencies are called upon to respond to increasingly complex needs and do more with less.  This burden of increased productivity comes at a cost, and there is a limit.  Over half of nonprofit workers in the US say they are burned out or at risk of burnout.

We know that volunteers are part of the solution.  They are a powerful way to build the capacity to meet missions.  In Pro Bono Australia’s most recent State of the Nonprofit Sector Survey, the majority of nonprofits agreed that human capital – in the form of skilled volunteers and paid staff – was the most important positive impact on the performance of their organizations.

There’s no doubt that volunteers contribute invaluable time and talent.  They also bring personal financial resources that make volunteerism an investment that reaps double the rewards.

One US study anticipates there may be 8 trillion dollars in donations from baby boomers over the next two decades.

So, Why is Volunteerism on the Decline?

Many blame the collapse of communities and the simple lack of time in our busy modern world.  However, research offers an alternate perspective.  A 2008 US Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that volunteers are as busy as other people; they simply make space for the time to serve.

What did non-volunteers do instead of serving?  They watched TV.

On average, non-volunteers watch 436 more hours each year, the equivalent of over 10 weeks of full-time work or a one-hour-long show per day.  In a typical week:

  • Recent volunteers watched 15 hours
  • Former volunteers watched 21 hours
  • Non-volunteers watched 23 hours

In today’s “always on,” world, digital devices have added to the competition for time and attention.  A recent study showed that Americans now average five hours and nine minutes daily with digital media, up from four hours and 31 minutes last year and three hours and 50 minutes in 2011.  Time spent watching TV, however, has remained consistent with “dual-screen viewing” growing in popularity.

What Must Volunteerism Lose to Gain?
What does this mean for nonprofits?  Perhaps, it’s time to reboot our volunteer leadership practices and leave behind legacy mindsets that impede progress.

In order for volunteers to SPEND their time with nonprofits, the experience must be designed to be WORTH their time.

Volunteers are seeking to be part of something greater than themselves.  They hope to serve a higher purpose, but uninspiring opportunities, inflexible policies, unequal power dynamics, and poor leadership often derail their inspiration.

It may be time to update how we attract, support, and recognize these valuable community partners.  To be sustainable, leaders of volunteers must tap into basic human nature and our most critical drivers of participation — autonomy, mastery, purpose, and interconnection.

In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have made monumental leaps in what we understand about human motivations and behavior.  They found that over 95 percent of our emotions, learning and decision-making occurs on the subconscious, versus rational, level.  Not for Profit organizations could harness these discoveries to design an improved “ecology of experience” for volunteers.

Neuroleadership is an emerging field that uses brain science to better understand how to motivate, influence and lead others. Researchers argue that the urge to approach possible rewards and avoid potential threats is deeply ingrained and a key influence on our social behavior.

The SCARF Model, developed by neuro leadership theorists, offer leaders a new way to think about how we collaborate, focusing on how we address perceived threats and rewards in our interchanges.  They pinpoint five domains that activate the brain’s circuitry and influence our ability to follow others and work in partnership:

  • Status – our relative importance to others
  • Certainty – our ability to predict the future
  • Autonomy – our sense of control over events
  • Relatedness – our sense of safety with others
  • Fairness – our perception of fair exchanges between people

Neuroleadership has particular value in leading volunteers, and its remedy is simple.  The more we perceive reward, the more we are able to collaborate and influence others.  The more we feel threatened, the less likely we will be able to successfully team.

Could it be that some of our current volunteer management and training methods may unwittingly stymie the perception of reward for volunteers?  Are we driving volunteers away with our management practices? Could adopting a new, brain-based model reverse the decline in volunteerism – both in Australia and the United States -?  It’s all worth consideration.

An Investment That’s Worth It

Volunteers will continue to require an investment.  Engaging them effectively is neither free, cheap, nor easy.  However, they can be powerful catalysts for change in communities and a key donor cohort for organizations that choose to take them seriously.

Note:  This article originally appeared as a guest op ed for ProBono Australia (January 12, 2016).  I address issues in volunteerism that are relevant in the US and elsewhere as well.  Enjoy!