The volunteer's new clothes - with apologies to the emperor!

For those of us who work in the not-for-profit sector, either as salaried employees or as committed volunteers, there was probably a moment when we made a choice – nfp or commercial – and the potential reasons for those choices are too many and various to list. For volunteers the years of involvement with a particular organisation or charity will pass quite quickly.  In the first instance it is interesting and exciting and it feels privileged to be on the ‘inside’, with your voice being heard and, hopefully, your opinions being valued.

As the years pass, however, subtle changes will creep in.  You aren’t able to offer as much time as previously, you can’t attend meetings, you can’t read the papers they send  you, you are bored with having the same discussions with the same people each time you meet up, you know there's a problem but you can't put your finger on it.  But even so, your status is an important part of your persona and it simply never occurs to you to give up.  At this point, though, are you becoming a problem for the very organisation that you think you are helping?

A NEW DAWN

A little honest self-examination is perhaps required.  You may, in fact, have arrived at an important point in your life – decision time.  Your chosen career path and your voluntary involvements have become who you are and yet you are increasingly kicking against the labels they bring – you are unfulfilled and feeling stifled.

In fact, it’s a bit like wearing a favourite jacket to death.  You wear it and wear it because you know it was beautiful when you bought it, you know it looks good and it’s easy to wear because it’s comfortable and it goes with everything in your wardrobe.

Then one morning you put it on and you notice it is looking a little shabby and eventually the morning dawns when you put it on and you know it has seen better days.  It is time to get rid of it and buy a new one – preferably one in a more up to date style or this year’s colour.

In this way we all evolve personally and it is important to acknowledge the change and find ways to deal with our need for something new or different.  This may involve a divergence or sidebar in your career path or stepping aside from your involvement with some or all of your outside, volunteering activities.  Is it time to try something new that has caught your attention?

CHERISH THEN ROTATE

For organisations, this is a significant and critical part of the volunteer lifecycle.  They cherish and depend on the long-serving and reliable.  However, this can also have a stifling effect on information gathering and discussions about the future.  Those with long histories can enjoy making sure that everyone knows those histories and much valuable time can be spent in looking backwards instead of forwards.  Allowing and encouraging refreshed groupings on various committees, boards and panels by bringing in fresh faces and opinions brings in new generations of volunteers and those who wish to become involved in various ways because they see opportunities being created for that involvement.  An interesting and important by-product is that the refreshment process allows and encourages mentoring activities to flourish, bringing in new ideas and, almost more importantly, renewed packets of energy.

Ensuring rotation of volunteer structures also acts to prevent the ‘truth’ from being endlessly driven through the organisation – the truth being the ideas which were there at the beginning and are deemed by some as necessary to remain for the lifetime of the organisation.  The results of impacting these ‘truths’ on the long suffering membership can mean that they don’t feel sufficiently enfranchised to be part of the current process.  The alternate inhibiting scenario occurs when the long-stable structure is persuaded to try out something new for its own sake, e.g. rebranding, new website, taking on new media, when it is perfectly obvious that this is top dressing and fundamentally nothing has changed inside the organisation – the emperor’s new clothes fits this scenario very well.  At this point members will start to point their fingers and wonder how the internal delusion can have been so complete.

THE RECIPE

So here’s the thing.  You want happy members.  Members need to feel that their requirements are paramount not sidelined.  Being inclusive and offering opportunities for involvement means that members know you are listening and not operating a closed shop.  They don’t walk away.  Ensure that strategic and structural guidance exists to channel all energy for the organisation's benefit.

Happy Members = engagement = renewing number of volunteers = happy members.

And they all lived happily ever after……