When Volunteerism Turns Toxic
Well, I finally did it. I picked a topic so taboo that I was rejected by several area experts when asked to go on record for this installment of “Breaking Good.” Apparently, I’m pushing boundaries and buttons here, folks.
This week, I’m coining the phrase “toxic volunteerism” and unpacking why not all inclinations to serve are created equal.
I think we can agree that volunteerism has been the lifeblood of nonprofits for decades. But, beware of blood poisoning. A growing trend in our region is people using their volunteerism as a social outlet – a way to make friends in a new community, an alternative to going to yet another brewery or a chance to curate a social media feed by nabbing the absolute. perfect. selfie.
Dedication to the cause, however, can be lacking … and costly.
Attracting devoted volunteers will always be a critical part of the nonprofit business plan. According to Brent Rinehart, Director of Communications for The Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte, volunteers are fundamental to their efforts.
“Organizations like ours desperately need consistent volunteers and we are so appreciative of people who partner with us,” Rinehart said. “We couldn’t exist without volunteers, but unfortunately, we don’t regularly have people reach out to ask us what we need.”
“Many times, potential volunteers come to us with pre-existing ideas about what they want to do, and they want the opportunity to fit within their own framework, not what we actually need the most,” Rinehart continues. “So, there’s definitely a push/pull there.”
Ask a room full of nonprofit professionals if there is such a thing as “toxic volunteerism,” and they will readily admit it exists. But the organizations themselves are often to blame. The well-worn alliterative phrase of seeking “time, talent and treasure” suggests that these contributions are of equal merit when in fact they are not.
Let me say that more clearly – volunteering an hour spent in service to a nonprofit you’ll never see again is helpful. It is not, however, equal to the financial contribution you could have made allowing that nonprofit to hire an individual to do that work and more instead of you.
In our data-driven world, we can actually calculate the value of volunteerism as not only an in-kind contribution, but also as a cost of management.
When we show up to help as a volunteer and invest our time, many of us don’t stop to think about the investment of time and training being made in us.
As noted by the Grantmaker Forum on Community & National Service, “the training, recruitment and promotion, materials, equipment, recognition, volunteer insurance, background checks and continuing education” are real costs to an organization. When volunteerism is seen as a transactional activity, it can be hard to calculate the net value to the nonprofit. For some, it may be a losing proposition.
The loss of a volunteer who was less than devoted to the mission to start might seem innocuous, but the loss of training investment can add up, not to mention the loss of possible future donations from that individual.
If there’s any doubt that volunteer work has a value – and an expense – to nonprofits, note that the in-house volunteer coordinator at many nonprofits reports to the development department, where fundraising for monetary support is the priority. They know that volunteers can also be vital sources of donations. Some organizations even invent low-priority tasks so well-meaning people can feel connected to the cause.
While this may make you cringe, I don’t hold it against the nonprofits. It’s solid fundraising strategy.
Organizations see volunteerism through this lens because of how difficult it can be to find individuals who hold themselves accountable to the tasks they are assigned or can be counted on to return.
To combat this, smart groups are charging volunteers a one-time fee for participation, both to offset management costs as well as a modest deterrent for people who show up once and never come back. This is becoming more of a standard for organizations spinning their wheels with “one and dones.”
So what should you do, gentle reader? Am I saying you shouldn’t volunteer? Far from it. I’m suggesting you avoid “toxic volunteerism” by making it an impact-centered activity. Try out different organizations toward a goal of finding the right fit. Look for that long-term, ongoing engagement that works for you and for the organization you’re serving.
And, if you don’t have the bandwidth to make that true commitment, you’re better off making a financial contribution, even a modest one. Otherwise, your “helpful hour” may instead be hurtful.
In other words, it’s not always about you, dude. There. I said it. Bring the pain.
This article is the third installment in the “Breaking Good” series by Josh Jacobson. Read the OVERVIEW and parts ONE and TWO here.
Still hungry? Take a few more bites.
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Photo Credit: Julia Fay Photography
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