The Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) has recently produced an excellent and readable report into micro-volunteering. In the section on risks to organisations, beneficiaries and volunteers, it observes that micro-volunteering “was felt to be riskier because organisations have less control over participants” and “there may be risks to the organisation surrounding reputation and image associated with a reduction in direct control over volunteers”.
I think IVR’s observations about control shine a spotlight on organisations’ attitudes to the volunteers they involve. Many organisations still see volunteers as nice-to-haves, complementing and supplementing paid staff and providing (mainly) non-essential work. They see volunteers as inherently risky – people who will more than likely damage their reputation given half the chance; people who need to be controlled and tightly managed.
Micro-volunteering challenges that. People want to get involved on their own terms, in their own ways and on their own timetable. They want to use their skills, experience and abilities to make a real difference – not just a contribution – to the causes that matter to them. They want to to make decisions for themselves about how to go about their volunteering, not be directed and micro-managed because someone on the paid staff thinks they might pose a risk.
In this sense micro-volunteering is perhaps the tip of an iceberg that is heading for the good ship volunteering – a growing threat looming ever closer that could hole some organisations below the waterline and do permanent damage if they don’t change course.
You see, volunteers in general are increasingly wanting control and empowerment. Baby boomers and the generations coming behind them will not engage in the way many organisations’ traditional volunteers have. Organisations are going to have to face up to the need to cease having the control they want to have over volunteers if they are going to engage these new generations as volunteers.
This is going to require a lot of change.
It’s going to mean volunteer managers relaxing their grip on systems and processes that make volunteering regimented and bureaucratic.
It’s going to require paid staff in general to have a new default view of volunteers, seeing them as a valuable resource, not as a threat to their livelihoods. We’re going to need a more grown-up debate about how paid staff and volunteers work together, not just ducking the issue by talking about job substitution.
Senior managers and trustees will need to reconsider what volunteers can contribute, recognise their skills and talents and stop simply viewing them as good for stuffing envelopes, or whatever the 21st century equivalent is.
The end of 2013 sees yet another year pass where these changes have been slow. The new year of 2014 presents another opportunity to grasp the nettle. I hope many organisations wake up and choose to do so; if they don’t, that iceberg will be another 12 months closer and the risk of the ship being damaged or even sunk will be even bigger.