The Biggest Inefficiency in Volunteering (and Overcoming It)

Last week, I heard the following two statements (in different meetings):

From a member (let’s call her Agnes): “I offered my help with PR and social media in our Division, but it seems nobody is interested.”
From a Division Conference organizer (let’s call him Marek): “We don’t have anyone who would be interested in doing PR for our Division conference. It’s so hard to get volunteers these days!”

What’s going on?

Before we answer that, let’s talk about the charm of volunteering.

Running a volunteer-based organization, such as Toastmasters – from the club to international levels – is a lot of work. While some of it is done by paid employees at the World Headquarters in Denver, who have it as a day job for which they are getting a regular salary, the vast majority of work in Toastmasters is done in thousands of clubs and more than a hundred of Districts by volunteers.

How can that even work?

If Marek works as an event manager and his boss needs a conference for 100 people organized at the end of April, he will come to Marek and tell him to do it. Likely, Marek will. In a way, organizing the conference will have “happened ” to Marek.

If Marek is a Toastmaster, and he notices a post on his Division’s Facebook page that “The Division Director is looking for a volunteer to organize the Division Conference”, Marek has the option to ignore it. But he can also actively step up and propose he could organize it. With that he, of his own free will, takes responsibility and offers his time and skills to get something done. The initial act of leadership.

The fact that in the second case it was Marek’s idea and not an idea of his boss makes all the difference. It was Marek’s choice. Because of that, his commitment is bigger. Likely he sees a purpose in it. And it seems he is either already good at organizing events, or wants to improve. Thus, for him, volunteering neatly packages the three elements of motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. When it comes to work that fulfills all those three elements – people enjoy doing it even without getting paid.

That’s the charm of volunteering. It’s not limited to organizing events. While Marek might enjoy organizing a Division Conference, his friend Alenka might enjoy running spreadsheets and auditing her club’s or District’s Finance. A lot gets done while no money is exchanged. Brilliant!

The Biggest Inefficiency: Failed Matching

But when can this work?

When volunteers are matched – by themselves or by Toastmasters leaders – to work that would check all their motivation boxes. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.

Coming back to my (imaginary, but almost real) friends Agnes and Marek.

While Agnes wrote a message to David, the Division PR Manager who failed to respond, Marek posted a call for volunteers on his Division Facebook page. He did not get any response.

The biggest inefficiency in volunteering: Failed matching.

Whose mistake was it?

Ignoring someone who volunteers is one of the cardinal sins in volunteer leadership. Not only the job won’t get done, being ignored also discourages the volunteer from offering help in the future.

On the leader’s (David’s) side, this often happens when they don’t have a clear goal, or have not done enough work to identify the actual work that needs to be done to achieve it. If David is not clear about the work he himself needs need to do, he is not in a position to “delegate” it. Not only he’s not pressed, but he does not even know what he could ask for help with!

Preparing for Getting Help

What David needs to do is to take a step back and list what’s on his plate. The list can look something like this:

  • Create visuals for membership campaigns
  • Post regularly on Facebook and Instagram
  • Search the internet for articles on Public Speaking to be shared on Social Media
  • Prepare a monthly newsletter
  • Support PR of Division Events
  • …(and possibly other activities)

With this list, now it is much easier to match Agnes’ “Hi, I would like to get active in Division PR, is there any way I can help?” All he needs to do is to look at the list and pick the bullet best suiting the person offering help and/or easiest to hand-over. He can even remember that the Division Conference organizer could welcome some help right away!

Finding the Way to Help

But there’s something that Agnes can do too.

Agnes feels like she is good at managing social media presence, and she noticed that her Division’s social media has gone somewhat quiet in the past two months. She sent a message to David offering help. For two weeks, she got no response and concluded, that her help is not welcome. What could she have done differently?

If she really wants to do it, the first thing Agnes needs to do is to adjust her expectations. Surprisingly, people don’t always fall on their knees and shed tears of joy, when we offer our help. Sometimes, they don’t even care. That’s okay!

Then, Agnes needs to clarify what is it she really wants to do. If she aims to“Run a Toastmasters-related social media channel”, there are many other ways to do that. She can offer help to the PR Manager for the District, she can reach out directly to the Division Conference organizer (Marek would be exalted!) or she can start her own Toastmasters-related Instagram channel, and connect with other members directly.

Why rely on one person who may be unresponsive for a hundred-and-one reasons?

Even You Can Help

What is it you can do if you’re neither David, Agnes nor Marek, but you know them?

If David is on your team, you can help him by challenging him for breaking down his work as illustrated above. It should not take more than 10 minutes, but it will make a big difference in terms of how he will be thinking about the “divisibility” of his work. Maybe he will even begin searching for volunteers to help him!

If Agnes is your friend, tell her that there are many ways she can get to do what she wants to do. If someone as brilliant as J.K. Rowling was turned down by 12 publishers before finding the one to publish Harry Potter, isn’t it reasonable that even our offer to help might be turned down (or ignored) a few times?

And if Marek keeps telling you he can’t find volunteers – you can trust him that most likely, they are out there. All he needs to do is to find the right way to find them.

As leaders, we want to get things done. The key condition for this to happen in a volunteering setting, is to enable smooth matching of volunteers with opportunities to do work they enjoy doing.

Even you can help – whether you need people to get work done, you want to offer your help, or know someone who wants to do either.

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