What Nonprofits Fail to Say When They’re Recruiting Volunteers — but Truly Matters

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When I was 21 years old — thanks to my mother’s connections — I secured a job in Washington, D.C. Then the weekend of New Year’s Eve, I received news that my mother, then 56, had been killed in a fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, while vacationing with my father.

Over the next few years, to help fill the gaping hole left by her death, I started volunteering at organizations in the Washington area. Doing so at a young age instilled in me just how powerful philanthropy and volunteer work can be — not only for creating a satisfying life — but for their immense value in making rich personal connections and creating a community for yourself — sometimes when you need it most.

In 1989, I left D.C. to take a job in Orange County, Calif., leaving behind everyone and everything I knew. I had to start building a community from scratch. When I landed there — desperate to find a great connection and purpose and productivity — I started volunteering with nonprofits. It came as second nature to me and was in fact what I needed to do to survive at the time.

Too often, though, when nonprofits talk about volunteering, they don’t stress what might matter most to the people they want to enlist to aid their organization. Chief among them are the relationships that volunteers can build with others, which are more valuable than ever after a year and half of living in a pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, from 1985 to 2006, the average American’s social network shrank, meaning the number of close confidants, declined by up to one-third. We’re living in a loneliness epidemic that is causing declines in our physical and mental health. Research reveals that people with a robust network of confidants have better job performance, feel more fulfilled, and even live longer. This is exactly what connecting with a rich and diverse network of people making a meaningful contribution to a bigger cause can deliver.

Here are some other key points I would make to recruit volunteers:

Stress the value of connecting with a cause that matters personally. It sounds trite, but when you work on causes you care about, you meet like-minded people who share your values and build relationships that can reap untold rewards. Today, many of us —even those of us who work at nonprofit organizations — forget to pause and reconnect with the issues we care most about. It’s important to take time away from technology — away from a screen — and pay attention to what you’re passionate about. In my book, The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Relationships at Work,

I share the story of Ginny Suss who built the Resistance Revival Chorus — a collective of women who came together in a chorus to sing powerful protest music on the heels of the Women’s March in 2017, following the inauguration of Donald Trump. When Suss recruited like-minded, creative people in her network, she did not have a budget or detailed plans. But the idea snowballed, and everyone in her network wanted to be in on it.

“Women were singing, protesting, connecting, being heard — challenging the systems and structures of power. Suss says the glue, the most potent magnetic force that held everything together, was the connection and network of women — passionate women aligned by a cause,” as I write in the book. The group has had a lasting impact in starting a new culture of protest and ended up performing at Carnegie Hall.

In recruiting volunteers, ask them to reflect on causes they care about and where they want to make a difference. Volunteers who genuinely care about the causes an organization represents will be a lot more effective in making phone calls, writing letters to key policy makers and influencers, or soliciting donations.

Find volunteers locally. If an organization does all its recruiting online, it misses the opportunity to tap those who live nearby and to become a key player in building community and bringing together people who might not otherwise find chances to connect and who might not realize what they have in common with their neighbors.

By reaching out to people who live in a region, a nonprofit can help people establish new roots (whether or not they are new to the area) and create a community that is both geographically relevant and meaningful to their interests. Volunteers will begin to see how meaningful relationships build upon one another to create a constellation of new connections around them.

Underscore the benefits of volunteering. Volunteering does far more than build rich relationships among people who share the same passion and values. Research has shown that volunteering makes people happier and healthier. A 2013 study by the UnitedHealth Group found compelling research on how volunteering impacts people: Seventy-six percent of people who had volunteered in the previous 12 months said they felt healthier; 78 percent said it lowered their stress levels; 94 percent said it improved their mood; 96 percent said it enriched their sense of purpose in life — and 81 percent said that volunteering through their company or organization strengthened their relationships with their co-workers.

The 2016 Deloitte Volunteer Impact Survey also found that 92 percent of corporate human-resources executives surveyed agreed that contributing business skills and expertise to a nonprofit is an effective way to improve employees’ leadership and professional skills.

Research has also shown that the more connections and touchpoints a relationship has, the deeper and more meaningful it will be. It makes sense: If co-workers simply meet on a Zoom call during the day and your relationship doesn’t go any further, it’s unlikely to blossom. But if they work together on important tasks and also collaborate on a community project together — serving the people in the surrounding area where they live — they’ll develop more touchpoints and a deeper connection. And they will be happier and more invested in their shared work as a result.

Volunteers will also be surprised at how their activity changes their sense of time. A study in the journal Psychological Science found that while there are only 24 hours in a day no matter how you slice it, it is possible to increase what’s known as time affluence — or the perception of how much time you have. This study found that giving away time by spending it on others — like people do when they volunteer — increases one’s feeling of time affluence. The reason is that when we do things for others, we get a boost of self-efficacy or experience a feeling of self-worth. And this, in turn, gives us a sense of accomplishment and achievement that begets a feeling of being able to get more done in less time.

It’s as if we simply gain a level of confidence in what we can do with the time that we have, improving our sense of control over getting things done more efficiently.

A little goes a long way. I have spent many years donating to nonprofit organizations and volunteering my time. Without kids to put through college, I have realized that I can use m
y resources to support the great work of women, elevate their voices, and help other organizations hoping to do the same. But people don’t have to dedicate their lives to an organization to make a difference or find a connection that is life-changing.

When people are surrounded by others with a common purpose and a shared set of values, sparks ignite. What’s more, even micro activities add up, and every little deposit in this work will count over time. Whether it’s phone banking to support a cause they care about or spreading the word about a crowdfunding campaign they supported, that daily work makes a difference.

Putting energy behind the organizations or people a volunteer wants to support doesn’t have to be a dramatic gesture or effort. That is setting the bar too high and can hold us back in volunteering our time and talents. Just as small habits matter, so do small steps toward meaningful relationships. An email to a policy maker or a call to remind a donor it’s time to give to the annual fund adds up over time to a powerful impact.

In these ways, nonprofit and community volunteer work can provide a powerful synergistic effect. I often tell people that my rescue pup Phoebe rescued me, and I similarly feel that the work of philanthropy — literally the desire to support the welfare of others — has helped me. While…

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