I spend several evenings a month with the different voluntary organizations in my ward. I enjoy meeting my neighbors and learning about what they care about, but I often wonder why it’s the same dozen or so people. Most of my neighbors want positive change in the community and believe it's important to be part of the democratic process, so why don't they show up? Can a nonprofit somehow determine who is likely to volunteer and who isn't? What makes someone stop being a Bourne and start being a Tuttle?
I have spent a large chunk of my career working with volunteers around policy issues - so I know the reasons that people give their time vary: values, civic duty, faith, professional advancement, wanting to make a change, meeting new people... the list goes on and on. But what determines who shows up to volunteer and who doesn’t? Based on my experiences both managing volunteers and being one, I believe there are three main variables - time, knowledge, and passion - that differentiate between the Bournes and the Tuttles of the world:
Time - What does a person give up to volunteer time? Playing with their children? Housework? Spending time with friends? In my experience, volunteers are overwhelmingly stay-at-home moms, retirees, or people that are self-employed and can manage their own schedules. The second biggest group is young people who do not have as many demands on their time. Admittedly "time" is the obvious variable to determine why people volunteer but its important to keep in mind because respecting a volunteer's time helps to ensure the volunteer will return.
Knowledge - Volunteers, especially with advocacy organizations, need to know their rights as citizens and where they can affect the most change in government. Is it a local issue they should bring up with the mayor? A national issue that needs a senator's attention? Which branch controls the issue? Knowledge is power and recent studies have begun to demonstrate a correlation between civic education and civic engagement. As a policy advocate, I have always known that educating volunteers on the "hows and whys" is key to a successful campaign, but as a former social studies teacher, I am glad to hear that people are beginning to see the connection between civic education and the health of our democracy. And its important to remember that knowledge can be provided to volunteers in order to keep them engaged in your cause through fact sheets, training sessions, and other educational opportunities.
Passion - Merriam Webster defines passion as "a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something." What made me spend four hours registering voters on Tuesday when I had a million other things to do? Why would high school students give up their winter break to study poverty issues? Why would a group of women race in Miami to raise awareness about chocolate companies' employment practices? It is important to keep a volunteer's passion burning in order to keep them involved. Getting to know your volunteers as individuals and providing individual opportunities for engagement will help stoke the fires of passion and keep volunteers engaged.
I will keep thinking about how to identify the Tuttles from the Bournes as I work with different organizations and help them manage their volunteers. In the interim, remember the flip side of "the why" is "how" to keep volunteers involved and key to this is making sure they feel their valuable time is used for a good cause, empowering them to make a difference, and remembering they are individuals with different motivations, skills, and passions.