Rob Jackson: Three reasons why involving volunteers might not be a good idea

Our columnist plays devil's advocate on the thorny issue of recruiting volunteers

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

I’m currently reading Adam Grant’s excellent book Originals. Grant explores how non-conformists change the world, using a wide range of stories, research and insights to challenge accepted wisdom about creativity and originality.

In an early chapter he argues that it is more effective to influence change by pointing out the flaws in an argument, not the strengths. This got me thinking. When trying to influence others about the value of volunteering, we generally talk up what’s great about volunteers and the contribution they make. What if we tried a different approach, as Grant suggests? What if we argued against involving volunteers? What might such a proposition look like?

Here’s my quick take on three reasons why involving volunteers in an organisation might not be a good idea.

1 Involving volunteers is not a quick fix

Until someone invents the instant volunteer (just add water, microwave for two minutes, then stir!), involving volunteers takes time. You’ve got to develop the right roles, identify the target audience, create engaging recruitment materials, go out and find people, interview them, select them, induct them, train them and support them. And you won’t get them to make a regular, long-term commitment on day one. You’ll have to cultivate a relationship with them, deepening their commitment and giving them flexibility in how they volunteer. There is no quick fix to your problems to be found here.

(The good news is that if you do it right, you’ll probably gain a supporter for life. But it’s going to take time.)

2 They might not give an immediate return on investment

For all the reasons listed above, it’s going to take a while before you see the benefits of volunteers getting involved in your work. Fundraising volunteers have to build relationships with others to bring the income in. Service delivery volunteers need time to settle into their roles to truly make a difference. You’ve got to be patient and committed to see the benefits that will come in time.

(Done properly, though, the return on involvement and return on investment can be huge.)

3 You will have to give up some power and control

Volunteers don’t want to be told what to do all the time. They don’t want to be micromanaged. They are typically intelligent, skilled and passionate people. They want to unleash their talents for the good of your organisation, not work as mindless servants to the paid staff. So you’re going to have to relinquish some control, trusting the volunteers to do their best and not squeezing out their creativity and enthusiasm.

(When you get this right, will you have some amazing new ideas and effective people working with you.)

What do you think? How would you pitch why involving volunteers isn’t a good idea? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Rob Jackson is a volunteering consultant

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