Martin Gorfinkel retired from the technology company he started and ran for 30 years. He is the legendary "retired and willing volunteer" but has run into roadblock after roadblock. We seldom hear from the would-be volunteer who never ended up volunteering; this is the voice of one such person, from whom there is much to learn (and a happy ending).
Trying to volunteer has been a disaster! Over the last five years I have made serious efforts to help at several organizations.
Exhibit A: A local hospital put out the word it was looking for men to help in the neo-natal nursery holding and cuddling babies. I would have paid them to do that! But first there was a two-hour orientation meeting at which we learned we needed to promise a certain number of hours per week on a fixed schedule for at least six months. AND . . . only after volunteering for more than two years could we expect to get assigned to work with babies! It felt like "bait and switch." I did not bother filling out the forms or going back.
Exhibit B: I volunteered during two holiday seasons to pick up toys that would be given to children. But the third year when I called, they told me how much they needed me, and that they would call in a few days. They never did.
Exhibit C: Another organization was looking for help writing reports.They found I had a background in statistics and signed me up to gather and analyze data. Turns out the organization had two locations; the internal politics favored location 1 while the statistics showed location 2 was about twice as efficient. I got no more data; they acknowledged receipt of the draft report – but did not think they would use it. Phone calls were not returned.
A tale of two food banks
A local food bank has two locations within easy driving distance of where I live. I have helped sorting food at both of them. At one location the people running the operation are sure they know the best way to do everything; they stand around and talk while the volunteers are sorting; they offer firm resistance to any suggestions for improvement. They're used to company teams volunteering in groups and don't know what to do with individuals. On the other hand, at the other location the management works up a sweat with the rest of the crew; they welcome new ideas, and when you show up the greeting is "Damn! It is good to see you again!!"
Common sense – along with your insurance company – dictates that you screen potential volunteers and gather some information from them. The workplace — even though it is a workplace for volunteers — does need to have some rules. But a group that wants volunteers must make the process "user friendly."
There are two ways – a rude way and a welcoming way — to present forms to be filled out. Too often the attitude has been: "In order to enjoy the privilege of working with us you must fill out this information." What if instead I were told: "We are so glad to have you helping; we do need to have some information about you, please fill out the forms."
Similarly, with the workplace rules, it could be, "For your health and safety, and to keep the insurance company happy, we have to request that you adhere to the following," or, "Here are the rules; see that you conform."
It takes some time and effort to get a volunteer "on board." I know your organization needs to get a return on the time spent. And I understand that you prefer volunteers who are dependable and willing to work over a long time. But don't forget that the potential volunteer is also investing time and effort. Again there are two approaches. Do you say, "You must agree to work four hours a week for the next six months," or do you phrase it as "If things work out that you are useful here and you enjoy the work we would like you to put in about four hours a week, and we hope you would be with us for the long haul."
Potential volunteers ask themselves what they are willing to do and if they are ready to make a commitment. Your organization should consider these questions and make a commitment to encouraging volunteers. Here are a few ideas from this discouraged volunteer:
1. Does your volunteer coordinator respond to telephone calls, email, and other communication in a timely fashion? Does he or she contact people who have helped in the past to see if they can help again?
2. Have you made sure that everyone who works with volunteers understands that the red tape and bureaucratic requirements are secondary to the primary objective of getting volunteers working productively? Have you checked to make sure that the way paperwork is presented is not a blockade that volunteers have to fight through?
3. Do you inadvertently entice volunteers with jobs that you won't let them perform right away — or ever?
4. Do you show appreciation for the work that volunteers do? Or do volunteers get the impression that you're doing a favor to them by letting them volunteer?
This story should have a happy ending – all stories need that. As I write this I've found some places that are making use of my volunteer time and skills, and I hope to write more for Blue Avocado as well.
Editor's note: After reading this submission, we couldn't help but wonder: maybe this guy is such a crank that no nonprofit would want him around? So we contacted the executive director of one of the organizations about which Martin complained. She reports that she was glad to hear his complaints, that they've improved processes there thanks to his complaints, and that he's been a great, easy-to-work-with volunteer for them ever since. Good to know.