Better Volunteering

Adam Fletcher speaking at a youth involvement conference in 2014.

I think all organizations that engage volunteers have an obligation to engage them in critical self-examination, especially about the service they are seeking to embark in.

I have promoted structural change for years is because it can be less threatening to encourage volunteers to look at change the policies, programs, and activities within a community, rather than to look at themselves. However, even that structural work, done absent critical reflection, is devoid of the type of solidarity I suggest organizations seek to foster within and between volunteers and service recipients.

I first felt the impact of noblesse oblige in my own community growing up as a teenager in a low-income neighborhood in the Midwest. It was one particular summer when groups of volunteers repeatedly showed up at our community center to do projects, excluding me and my friends from helping out when we asked to, that I realized they were serving themselves more than us: by painting, leading games, cooking food, and doing work in our lives they were trying to feel better about themselves.

From that place, and then three years of AmeriCorps and 13 years of a nonprofit career that I devised a model to illustrate motivations for service in 2001. Since then, I have worked with thousands of people to help them identify if they are motivated by pity, sympathy, empathy, or solidarity in order to serve others.

It was that model that showed me that we must encourage volunteers to actively seek to change their perceptions about service and volunteerism (and thus, their attitudes and their lives). Doing anything less actually puts many organizations in the position of perpetuating a type of hypocrisy that damns their best intentions. I think we can do better than that- and that we have to, for the sake of our society.

For me, that means a course of activity that might begin with a volunteer contacting an organization and saying, “I want to volunteer.” Immediately, the organization provides the volunteer with a brochure or a web address that asks five critical questions about volunteering for them, to the effect of,

  • “Why do you want to volunteer?”
  • “Who do you think benefits by you volunteering with our organization?”
  • “What difference do you think volunteerism makes in your life,”
  • …And so forth, sussing out the motivations for volunteerism.After that the organization would train each individual volunteer according to their motivation: The person who comes from a place of pity or sympathy would embark on a course of activities that would help them identify how they can relate to and engage with service recipients in a more empathetic way; the person who comes from empathy would be driven towards solidarity.

In this way we can take volunteerism out of the rut it is in, and move a lot of effort to a brand new place!

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