Next time you ponder how much technology has improved our lives, consider this: In prehistoric times, it took people 20 hours of work a week to meet their survival needs. So much for the rosy sitcoms of the '50s showing how much leisure we'd all have due to technological advances.
The fact is, Americans are working longer and harder than ever before, just to make ends meet. With the advent of the working couple, single-parent families and overachiever schedules, each of us has fewer leisure hours. These societal changes have had a serious effect on volunteerism.
The generations-old model of the housewife volunteer is now very nearly a relic. That woman is now on a career path, or a working mom, perhaps rearing a family by herself. Volunteers are simply harder to come by.
Or are they? Perhaps the non-profit community needs a new paradigm for volunteerism. Our world has changed, yet we still tend to structure our volunteer recruitment and retention efforts as if the housewife-mother was the primary segment of the volunteer pool. We desperately try to recruit a type of volunteer who is increasingly no longer out there.
What is needed is a market-driven approach to volunteerism. Such an approach addresses the scheduling realities of the volunteer, while acknowledging that the volunteer experience is a valuable product -- yes, a product -- for those searching for meaning in their lives.
Next, the new volunteerism paradigm recognizes that, like any marketing issue, an integrated, systems approach to volunteerism needs to be developed for the organization. The systems approach must encompass every aspect of the volunteer experience, from recruitment to evaluation.
The new paradigm also recognizes that organizations must band together to effect this shift in perception. Movements like Maryland's Partners For Giving work on behalf of all non-profits to set giving and volunteering standards and to broadcast them to a wide audience. Other networks should foster volunteerism on such a broad scale.
Few people are available for long-term, open-ended projects today. The new volunteer paradigm makes liberal use of time-limited and task-specific volunteer projects. A wonderful example of this concept is the Corporate Volunteer Council's use of large one-day work projects. In other cases, non-profits will ask a corporate exec to sit on a study committee focused on a single task.
Despite its inherent problems, volunteer opportunities must be available for family units. One of the most frightening aspects of the emerging volunteerism paradigm is that the mother no longer carries the banner of volunteerism in the family. Non-profits and government agencies must offer opportunities for the whole family to participate in community service, so the service ethic is heartily nurtured in future generations.
The new volunteerism paradigm is an active listening model.
Non-profits cannot assume that they know what the volunteer experience can and should be. Agencies should not assume that volunteers will be content to arrive and stuff envelopes for an evening, if they are put to work at all. Non-profits must constantly talk with their constituents to develop programs that meet the needs of the organization and its volunteers.
In this new paradigm, reward systems need to be structured differently, too.
New approaches need to be tried, revised, discarded, and rolled out, as we face the challenges of recruiting the next generation of volunteers. But, unless we change the paradigm under which we operate, these approaches are bound to be more of the same, shouted from the sidelines at a generation of harried citizens who are running by, too busy to listen.
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.