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Now is the Time to Connect With Volunteers

8 June 2017 at 9:00 am
Wendy Williams
Now is the time to connect with people who may not have been connected with formal volunteering and harness that energy and passion towards making a difference, according to US volunteer management consultant Tobi Johnson.

Wendy Williams | 8 June 2017 at 9:00 am


Now is the Time to Connect With Volunteers
8 June 2017 at 9:00 am

Now is the time to connect with people who may not have been connected with formal volunteering and harness that energy and passion towards making a difference, according to US volunteer management consultant Tobi Johnson.

Johnson, the president of Tobi Johnson and Associates and founder of VolunteerPro, was the keynote speaker at the Volunteering NSW 2017 State Conference on Wednesday.

She addressed more than 180 delegates at the conference, under the theme Future Proofing Volunteering, offering insight into how the sector could positively leverage grassroots activism, using examples from her homeland in the Trump era.

She told Pro Bono News one of the fallouts from the recent US election was a spontaneous outburst of volunteering and the rise of what she called “rogue volunteering”.

“We’ve seen it globally but based on what’s happened with our recent elections in the US, we’ve really seen a huge uptake in citizen engagement across different causes, like the Women’s March for example, and that was a global phenomenon. We had marches in Sydney, marches in Melbourne, marches in DC, marches in my small city, so across the world we are seeing people, many of whom have never been involved in any type of community activism in the past, [get involved],” Johnson said.

“We have also seen an uptake  – actually it is unprecedented I don’t think it’s ever happened before  –  of federal staff [who] have started social media accounts particularly Twitter that are alt. So the first group to do it was the national parks service, they are the caretakers of all of our national parks across the US and they started their own Twitter account, then we started having alt NASA and we even had an alt POTUS account so there is probably over 30 now of these alt twitter accounts where government employees are taking their own big risks with their jobs, to get information out into the community.

“These are for all intents and purposes volunteers, no one’s paying them to do it, they’re not doing it on their work time and they’re not doing it under the auspices of an organisation.”

Johnson said the challenge for organisations was to tap into this energy.

“People are very, very engaged now,” she said.

“The opportunity and challenge I think for organisations is if we’re not offering the kind of environment that fosters volunteerism in respect of dignity and opportunity where volunteers can make a huge difference in our missions and in the missions that they care about then we’re going to lose this opportunity and they’re going to do their own thing.

“There is nothing wrong with people doing their own thing, certainly we’re all helping each other out in our neighbourhoods and our communities, but there is so much more that volunteers can do in partnership with organisations than they can do on their own because organisations have expertise, they have infrastructure, they have funding and they can pull together. When volunteers are working together, they can do more. I think we still have work to do on how those partnerships can do more than what they’re doing right now.”

Johnson said formal volunteering had fallen in the US, as it has in Australia over the last 10 years, and she suggested one of the institutional issues was a lack of respect for volunteers even within volunteer engaging organisations.

She cautioned if organisations did not get behind the volunteering spirit it would be a tremendous lost opportunity.

Tobi Johnson“I see this opportunity but at the same token I see a tension between leadership in organisations and their, for lack of a better word, respect or buy-in into both volunteers and volunteer services,” Johnson said.

“There is this traditional tension. And it is not in every organisation, but it is in enough organisations.

“There is just a focus on money, not recognising that volunteers are donors and donors are volunteers.”

Johnson said research had shown that organisations got better outcomes when there was a collaborative model not a hierarchical model.

She encouraged organisations to use change management to build respect and move towards a more collaborative model.

“So understanding that in order to change hearts and minds you have to have a strategy, you have to have a very strategic communications plan for changing hearts and minds even within your own organisation. So it is sort of like, regular communications when you think about who are your target audiences, what are their hopes and fears and how are you going to message to them. That is part of it,” she said.

“The other thing that we know, just breaking down barriers with people, there are certain tactics you can use to build trust, one of them is just asking for advice, so not giving the answer and actually going to your leadership and saying you know: ‘I’ve got this problem, I would like your advice.’ And it starts to break down those barriers.

“I also think there is a huge need to change, really before you can do anything of these things, and really work a change management strategy you have to come to grips with your own perspective and your own mindset around, people having limited beliefs about their own programs. So sometimes as leaders of volunteers, we have to start with ourselves. What are the limiting mindsets and beliefs that are keeping us from moving forward, do we actually truly believe that volunteers are as valuable as paid staff? Do we believe that our work deserves robust support?

“And if you’ve been in a situation where you’ve been disempowered, for all intents and purposes, for a while. Those limiting beliefs might be there looking around. And so the first thing is to figure out what’s stopping you personally and then move to doing change management.”

She said organisations needed to seize the moment and capitalise on the energy to extend a one-off march into something more long-lasting.

“I’ve been to marches in the states so I know how great they feel, and you feel an affinity to people and you feel very empowered, but a march on it’s own will not change policy, it is one tactic in many. So people really have to continue the work in smaller groups,” Johnson said.

“People aren’t a one cause type of person, they do activism and they can do volunteering as well. And so I think now is the time to seize the moment to connect with people who may not have been connected with formal volunteering and harness that energy and passion towards making a difference right here and right now.

“I think that means, non profits need to learn how to really focus their message and focus our activities on communicating the change that has already happened through volunteers, the change that they’re planning to happen and the change that will happen and people are practical.

“The other thing is you’ve been to marches, you’ve done this and you’ve done that and you’ve never done these things before, you are probably thinking right now: ‘It’s been six months since the women’s march, jeez now what do I do?’ Part of the problem for a lot of people is they have no idea how many volunteer opportunities exist, even though we have them listed online they have no clue where to look.

“We’ve got to really pump up our outreach efforts right now and have messages that talk about change.”

She said the rise of episodic volunteering could be problematic for organisations but there were ways to handle it.

“The interesting research around what in the states we call episodic volunteering, which is more ad hoc, one off, versus continuous, traditional, I come every thursday, either is it special event volunteering or i’m just doing one thing or I come in once and awhile then I leave, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that that is on the rise,” she said.

“That’s a challenge for organisations that are direct service orientated and that cannot survive without traditional volunteers.

“I recommend to people take your traditional volunteering role and create them as projects, as time based, like a six month or a one year versus ‘I want you to sign you life away on the dotted line and you are going to stay here forever’. Because that scares people nowadays. Do your recruitment seasonally, ask people to sign up for a specific amount of time and then say at the end of that amount of time, you can choose to do another role in our organisation, you can stay doing this role or you can leave and we’re happy that we had you here.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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