Did the financial collapse have an effect on volunteering rates? You bet. Volunteer rates mushroomed during the winter of 2009. So where are all those volunteers now? Good question.

In the early days of the Obama craze (which, incidentally, seems to have waned only for Americans) there was a strong pull for increased volunteering efforts. Major media voices like Oprah and Starbucks joined the call and soon we, the people, began to respond. When the economy crashed and caused overwhelming job losses, we found ourselves wondering what to do with the extra hours on our hands. It was easy – even exciting – to jump on the volunteering bandwagon. Organizations such as the Taproot Foundation with Aaron Hurst, saw a 171% influx in the number of people coming through their doors, ready and willing to help. Many Non-Profits weren’t quite sure what to do with the inbound droves of helping hands. It was a welcome problem. Better to have too much help than too little, right?

Now, looking back at 2009, we’re just not quite sure what happened. According to studies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Tiller’s Social Action Survey, the overall increase in numbers of volunteers in 2009 was, well, marginal at best. There wasn’t much of a change at all. In fact, other research such as America’s Civic Health Index suggests that 2009 actually experienced a civic depression (72% say they cut back on volunteering last year). It’s a disappointing thought – one which Realized Worth could not help but address. Why, after the influx, did volunteers not stick around? What’s wrong with the volunteer experience?

Do you remember the first time?

Let’s start with the beginning. How did you feel the first day you volunteered?

Here’s how it usually goes:

You sign up to volunteer with an organization that does work you’re into – animals or trees or people, something like that. You dive in with absolute abandon. You’re invigorated by the seemingly endless need for your personal contribution. Each day there is more work to be done, new milestones to achieve, greater good to give. You’ve put your best effort into the work, and you’re happy to be doing something useful with your extra time. So far, so good.

6 months go by and… you hate to admit it, but these days you’re just not as enthused. Like the monotony that settles into some relationships after the honeymoon period, you wonder if the “glow” of this once new and exciting endeavor has worn off. Its just not connecting to who you are… you’re constantly thinking of other places where your time would be better spent… you feel guilty when the non-profit’s leaders ask you to commit more time, because at this point, you can hardly talk yourself into 1 hour a week. Another month or two and you decide the stress is no longer worth the effort and you just stop showing up. Maybe a more suitable opportunity will present itself down the road.

And there you have it. The influx and the downturn – the roller coaster ride of volunteering in 2009.

It’s sad, really, and entirely unnecessary. The great failure of us as Non-Profits is in treating every volunteer the same. Novices and veterans are expected to contribute at the same level. This is just not realistic – it’s not even helpful. Non-Profits must begin to pay attention to The Journey of the Volunteer.

The Journey of the Volunteer

Imagine you take a trip to Greece. It’s your first time in the Mediterranean and you are invigorated! You strap on your money pouch, sling your camera around your neck, slather on the sunscreen, and set out for the tour bus. You ask questions too loudly, walk on the wrong side of the street, and happily hand over too much cash for your first gyro. And all the while, you’re pretty sure you’re blending right in to the culture. For everyone around you its unmistakable: You are a Tourist.

Now, go back to the Mediterranean a few times and you’ll hardly even notice as you begin to acclimate. You’ll know where to go, and where not to go. Your choice of wardrobe will become appropriate for the weather and terrain, your questions will only highlight your knowledge, your camera… it will fit covertly in the pocket of your slacks. When tourists come to you asking questions, the metamorphosis will be clear: You are a Traveler.

And after years of these visits to not only Greece, but throughout the Balkan Peninsula, you have come to love the land as your own. You have a home in the heart of Athens, the language flows easily in conversation, you know the ins and outs of where to be and how to get there. As you begin to bring friends for summer visits, everyone knows its true: You are a Guide.

Tourist – Traveler – Guide. This is the journey of the volunteer. The great failure of the Non-Profit lies in expecting tourists to act like guides, treating guides like tourists, and ignoring the traveler all-together. Intrigued? Good. Watch for our next post, “Tourist, Traveler, Guide” on how to meet each volunteer at their highest level of contribution.

Email Chris: chrisjarvis@realizedworth.com
Email Angela: angela@realizedworth.com

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