Guest Blog: Volunteerism has changed – but have nonprofits changed with it?

“Volunteering is on the decline.”
“Young people are disengaged.”
“People are abandoning community.”

I heard versions of these same concerns while delivering workshops last week in three very different communities.

While on the surface many would believe these are valid issues, personally I’m not buying it.

I’m not buying it because everywhere I go, in addition to these concerns, I’m also hearing that people are hungry for a sense of community and for being connected to one another. And, despite not always being involved, they very much do want to give back to their communities.

Could it be that it isn’t people who are abandoning community, but rather, communities abandoning people?

As my good friend Ian Hill puts it, volunteering has changed but communities and nonprofit organizations haven’t always changed with them.

He’s so very right.

Hill points out that volunteering is in our DNA because it used to be obligatory and essential.

When people first settled in Canada, if they didn’t volunteer to help one another clear the land and build their homes and barns, they simply wouldn’t have survived.  If they hadn’t banded together and shared their respective resources, they wouldn’t have been able to respond to the need for roads, churches, schools, parks, and other community services.

In essence, people worked together to implement a collective vision for their community, worked side by side to complete the required activities, and shared the resulting victories. Along the way, they built relationships, trust, and ultimately — a sense of community.

Following World Wars I and II as we strove to become more civilized — or at least what we saw as being civilized — we outsourced the work, hiring other people to deliver the services and build the roads, churches, schools, and parks that used to be done by volunteers.

When it became clear that volunteering could no longer be dictated as being essential to survival, people were often shamed or “guilted” into serving their community. For instance, many of my parents’ generation were raised to feel it was part of their moral obligation to give back to their community.

Today, it seems we’ve lost the experience born of both the dictated, shared experiences of sweat equity volunteering, and of being guilted into volunteering.

Ultimately that means we’ve lost the trusted relationships cultivated by volunteering, as well as the understanding and importance of both community and community building.

The fallout of this is that we have become a pretty cynical bunch.

Since we no longer have dictated shared experiences and volunteering is no longer seen as obligatory, we’ve ended up living in communities where although we might have connections with those who share the same interests, we don’t have trusted relationships and a sense of belonging. Instead, we are asking, “Why should I be involved in my community?” and are challenging community groups to prove to us that their initiative is worth our time, talent, and treasure.

If we aren’t convinced the volunteering is worthwhile, we may be seen as being apathetic or disengaged when it is likely more about the fact that we don’t know and trust one another.

Unfortunately, the majority of community groups have failed to adjust to this reality and still believe they can dictate the experience rather than having it dictated by the user. Too often this means that while community groups have a cohort of mature volunteers, they aren’t being augmented with new recruits.

So what do we do?

Everyone who wants to engage someone as a volunteer needs to begin by investing time and energy into  building relationships — face to face, one cup of coffee at a time.  The intent is to focus on discovering and putting to work what Hill calls, the “irrational passion” within each of us, and to give the potential volunteer the choice for how it can be applied.

The world is full of educated, experienced, talented people who care about their communities, and are willing and wanting to contribute.

Citizens young and old are seeking meaningful, relevant, time-specific projects that will allow them to dictate the experience and be paid — not with money but with meaning.

Brenda Herchmer,

CEO of Campus for Communities of the Future
Owner of Grassroots Enterprises

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