Later this month, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations will launch its much-anticipated volunteer experience research report, Time Well Spent.
The study will go beyond numbers of volunteers, how many hours they give and generalised data on volunteer motivation, instead exploring the day-to-day experience volunteers have with civil society organisations.
Anticipating this report caused me to reflect on an excellent article on Seth Godin's blog last year that examined the concepts of exit, voice and loyalty. Seth’s post was about customer service but applies equally to volunteering.
Let’s assume you start volunteering. Despite your initial enthusiasm, your experience starts to sour for any one of a number of reasons: a lack of support, that there is work ready for you to do when you arrive, the paid staff you work alongside don’t remember your name and so on. When this happens you have three options available to you, all of which have consequences for the volunteer involving organisation.
In frustration at your poor experience, you leave the organisation, never to return. It’s likely that you never tell anyone at the organisation why you left and what led to your bad experience. Consequently the organisation can’t do anything to fix the problem and paid staff will express frustration at another volunteer lost so soon.
It's highly likely, however, that you will tell your friends, family and social media networks about your bad experience. This might cause damage to the reputation of that organisation, making it harder for it to recruit volunteers in future.
"Sometimes, instead of leaving, people choose to to speak up" - Seth Godin.
Rather than walk away, you complain about your poor experience and ask for improvements to be made: a new manager, a different role, paid staff being better prepared for your arrival and so on. Some staff might label you as a complainer, but the smart ones will see an opportunity to learn and improve, giving you a better experience in future.
In this scenario, despite the bad experience, you keep on volunteering with the organisation. Maybe you just don’t feel able to speak up. Perhaps you are so passionate about the cause that you are willing to put up with some frustration.
But day by day you get more frustrated with the bad experience you’re having. You become less enthusiastic about the work, perhaps manifesting your frustration through some passive-aggressive behaviour or becoming less productive. Paid staff and other volunteers start to see you as a trouble-maker, a pain in the neck, a toxic volunteer whose attitude negatively affects others.
Not an ideal situation for anyone!
There are two lessons I think volunteer-involving organisations can learn from these exit, voice and loyalty scenarios.
First, we should not shy away from those volunteers who speak up with legitimate complaints. These are opportunities for us to learn and improve, delivering better experiences in future and building a more positive kind of loyalty than those outlined above. As Seth Godin puts it: "Loyalty, then, could be defined as the emotion that sways us to speak up when we're tempted to walk away instead. Voice is an expression of loyalty. Voice is not merely criticism; it might be the contribution of someone who has the option to walk away but doesn’t."
Second, we should diligently study the findings of the NCVO’s Time Well Spent report, seeking out any insights to help us improve the volunteering experience overall.
Prevention is always better than the cure.
Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant