Why Self-Interested Volunteers are the Best for Nonprofits | Beth's Blog

Why Self-Interested Volunteers are the Best for Nonprofits

Guest Post, Research Studies, Strategy

Note from Beth:   The Mobilization Lab at Greenpeace recently commissioned and released this report, Beyond the First Click: How Today’s Volunteers Build the Power of Movements and NGOS.   Beyond the First Click examines innovative volunteer engagement work by 35 organisations empowering people to scale change and win by learning and doing more.  Authored by Capulet’s Julie Szabo and Darren Barefoot, this report is based on in-depth interviews with leading practitioners and a literature review. Beyond the First Click is a project of Capulet, Change.org and the Mobilisation Lab at Greenpeace.  You can download the complete report here.   Darren Barefoot and Julie Szabo kindly offered to share this guest post to reflect on on the findings.


Why Self-Interested Volunteers are the Best for Nonprofits – Guest Post

For Washington Trail Association volunteers like Chris O’Brien, donning an orange hard hat out on the trail is a badge of honour. “Orange hats” are assistant crew leaders who teach “green hats” how to do trail building and maintenance correctly. They offer direction, supervision and make outings fun. Becoming certified as an orange hat is recognition of commitment and skill–it’s a real accomplishment.

In Beyond the First Click: How today’s volunteers build power for movements and NGOs, we report on effective strategies for engaging high-level volunteers. Six key lessons surfaced from our interviews with more than 35 global nonprofits. One of those insights was that when organisations like the Washington Trail Association treat volunteers like staff, involve them in high-level work and track their performance, volunteers become more invested in their own and the organisation’s success.

Dr. Dietmar Kress puts his PhD in Sociology to work as Director of Actions and Volunteering at Greenpeace Germany. He says science confirms what he’s learned working with thousands of volunteers over decades–volunteers engage more deeply when there’s opportunity for growth and personal benefit.

Greenpeace Germany’s spokesperson program is a textbook case of Kress’ thesis in action. More than a hundred hand-selected volunteers are highly trained in interview techniques, media relations and public speaking to become Greenpeace spokespeople. These volunteers engage journalists at local newspapers, radio and TV stations to exponentially scale up Greenpeace’s visibility and impact in Germany.

Like earning your orange hard hat, it’s an honour and a serious commitment to be a spokesperson. “It’s the most important volunteer role one can have at Greenpeace Germany,” says Dr. Kress. The role and ongoing coaching that accompanies it can lead to further opportunities like being hired in media relations, being accepted to a journalism program or working for a media company.

7000 kilometres away in India, Haiyya is training the next generation of community organisers. Once they’ve completed the training program, Haiyya Fellows campaign on civic issues in their own neighbourhoods. By activating thousands of volunteers, Haiyya Fellows have registered 30,000 first-time voters in Mumbai, founded public safety citizen groups and put pressure on local political candidates to address pressing civic issues.

Executive Director Aprajita Pandey says that while community-wide change is the desired outcome, the motivation for becoming a Haiyya Fellow often begins with a personal story. There’s something each Fellow has experienced that sparks their desire to become a change agent. “A Fellow’s self-interest in making her campaign a success is often the anchor and motivation. But with the right training, that lens will shifts to collective success,” says Pandey.

Holding volunteers accountable for personal and organisational outcomes is critical to Haiyya’s theory of change. “We make expectations very clear. Our Fellows should feel they’re working at a job, even if they already have a job or are a full-time student,” says Pandey.

Anjali Prabhaker is a past Fellow who now builds capacity for Haiyya by coaching incoming Fellows. By investing in Prabhaker’s leadership skills, Haiyya has helped her reach both personal goals and achieve for the organisation. She says, “I never thought I could be coaching and mentoring people. It felt amazing to identify with that exhilaration of, ‘yes, I can do it!’”

Within our own organisations, where resources and time can be tight, it’s easy to undervalue volunteer contributions, especially if deeper volunteer engagement means investing time and money in their success. We sometimes back away from giving volunteers mission-critical work and holding them accountable for outcomes. But when we take steps to offer meaningful opportunities and challenge our volunteers, it may be our organisation that benefits most.

About the Authors

Capulet’s Julie Szabo and Darren Barefoot are the authors of Friends with Benefits: A Social Media Marketing Handbook, one of the first books published on the topic of social media marketing.Capulet works with ambitious and gutsy non-profits and companies that care, like the United Nations, Mountain Equipment Co-op and Greenpeace International.

Leave a Reply