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What Must Australian Volunteerism Lose to Win?


Tuesday, 12th January 2016 at 9:23 am
Tobi Johnson
It may be time to update how we attract, support and recognise volunteers as valuable community partners and tap into emerging leadership models for Not for Profits, writes volunteer management expert Tobi Johnson.

Tuesday, 12th January 2016
at 9:23 am
Tobi Johnson


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What Must Australian Volunteerism Lose to Win?
Tuesday, 12th January 2016 at 9:23 am

It may be time to update how we attract, support and recognise volunteers as valuable community partners and tap into emerging leadership models for Not for Profits, writes volunteer management expert Tobi Johnson.

Let’s face it, it’s getting harder and harder to engage quality, committed volunteer support.

Volunteers are evolving with society. Past organisational approaches to engaging volunteers simply aren’t working any more.

Consider these troubling trends:

As volunteer rate decline, social and government sector agencies are responding to increasingly complex needs and having to do more with less.

We know that volunteers are part of the solution, yet more than half of American Not for Profit workers say they are burned out or at risk of burnout.

In Pro Bono Australia’s most recent State of the Nonprofit Sector survey, most non-profit organisations agreed that human capital – in the form of skilled volunteers and paid staff – had the most important positive impact on their organisation’s performance.

Volunteers contribute invaluable time and talent and, importantly, also have the potential to double financial rewards.

  • Volunteers are almost twice as likely to donate to charity as non-volunteers.
  • 43 per cent of volunteers assist with fundraising and almost nine out of every 10 volunteers make direct personal cash donations to their causes. Half of volunteers say that volunteering inspires them to donate more.

So why is volunteering declining?

Many blame the decline on the collapse of communities and people being time poor. However, research offers an alternate perspective.

A 2008 US Bureau of Labor Statistics study found that volunteers are as busy as other people; they simply make space for the time to serve.

What did non-volunteers do instead of serving? They watched TV.

On average, non-volunteers watch 436 more hours each year, the equivalent of over 10 weeks of full-time work or a one hour-long show per day.

In a typical week:

  • Recent volunteers watched 15 hours
  • Former volunteers watched 21 hours
  • Non-volunteers watched 23 hours

Digital devices increasingly compete for time and attention on top of consistently strong levels of television viewing. Americans now average five hours and nine minutes of daily digital media use, up more than one-third in four years.

What must volunteerism lose to gain?

What does this mean to non-profit organisations? Perhaps it’s time for us to reboot our volunteer leadership practices and leave behind legacy mindsets that impede progress.

If volunteers are to spend their time then the experience must be worth their time.

Volunteers want to be part of something greater than themselves, to serve a higher purpose. However, their intentions are often derailed by organisations offering uninspiring opportunities, inflexible policies, unequal power dynamics and poor leadership.

To sustainably attract, support and recognise these valuable community partners, volunteer leaders must tap into basic human nature and our most critical drivers of participation – autonomy, mastery, purpose and interconnection.

In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have made monumental leaps in understanding human motivations and behavior.

They have found that more than 95 per cent of our emotions, learning and decision-making happens on a subconscious, rather than rational, level. Non-profit organisations can harness these discoveries to design an improved “ecology of experience” for volunteers.

The emerging field of neuroleadership uses brain science to better understand how to motivate, influence and lead others. Researchers argue that the urge to approach possible rewards and avoid potential threats is deeply ingrained and a key influence on our social behavior.

The SCARF Model, developed by neuroleadership theorists, offer leaders a new way to think about how we collaborate with a focus on how we address perceived threats and rewards. The model pinpoints five domains that activate the brain’s circuitry and influence our ability to follow others and work in partnership:

  • Status – our relative importance to others
  • Certainty – our ability to predict the future
  • Autonomy – our sense of control over events
  • Relatedness – our sense of safety with others
  • Fairness – our perception of fair exchanges between people

Neuroleadership has particular value in leading volunteers. Its remedy is simple: the more we perceive reward, the more we are able to collaborate and influence others. The more we feel threatened, the less likely we will be able to successfully team.

Could it be that some of our current volunteer management and training methods unwittingly stymie volunteers’ perceived rewards? Are our management practices driving volunteers away? Could the adoption of a new, brain-based model reverse both the Australian and US decline in volunteerism? It’s all worth consideration.

An investment that’s worth it

Volunteers will continue to require investment. Engaging them effectively is neither free, cheap nor easy. However, volunteers can be powerful catalysts for community change and key donors for organisations that take them seriously.

Is your investment in volunteers reaping rewards? Join us at this upcoming Pro Bono Australia Executive Webinar to find out!

Making the Case for Volunteer Involvement: How to Calculate Return on Investment (ROI), presented by Tobi Johnson, MA, CVA on 28 January 2016 from 10-11am AEDT. Click here to register.

About the author: Tobi Johnson, MA, CVA, is an author, speaker, trainer, and thought leader in the field of volunteer engagement. She the present of the consultancy Tobi Johnson & Associates and founder of VolunteerPro, an online training and networking community for volunteer managers.


Tobi Johnson  |   |  @ProBonoNews

Tobi Johnson, MA, CVA, is an author, speaker, trainer, and thought leader in the field of volunteer engagement.

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