Travels with Myself

A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author

23.1 Volunteer Vicissitudes

Hats off to all those who have the courage, or naiveté, to offer themselves up for a little volunteer work. Without those volunteers many not-for-profit organizations would not survive to realize their respective visions. With those volunteers NFPs at least limp and lurch along, struggling to keep their association alive.

Why do they do it? Devotion to a cause? Perhaps. Commitment to the interests of the society of which they are members? A sense of duty? Maybe. Recognition? – especially if they don’t have that need satisfied in their day jobs? Probably. To relieve boredom and fill the empty hours in their lives? Almost certainly, especially if they are/were achievement-oriented and don’t, or no longer, find it in their current lives. 

Having a sense of purpose in one’s life, and finding opportunities to use one’s talents, is a proven route to happiness. Some people find satisfaction in pursuit of hobbies and leisure activities, but few people are content for long with idleness. Volunteering provides opportunities to put some purpose back in one’s life.

Many volunteers, especially lifers, do it for noble reasons, a sense of altruism, giving back. These are virtuous motives. You don’t have to be a lifer to be a virtuous volunteer but you need to be committed and give it a worthwhile go for at least as long as you have the stamina. Many volunteers, though, have other motives, or find out they aren’t as motivated to make a contribution as they first thought when they volunteered, caught in a moment of enthusiasm, or pressure.

Hence, volunteer vicissitudes. 

I like that word vicissitudes – obscure, biting, hard to spell. Harder yet to use in a sentence. Vicissitudes: noun – a change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant. ‘He started out with the best of intentions but a change in his personal situation – the vicissitudes of life and a career – made him regret his decision to volunteer.’

Sometimes these vicissitudes are genuine and wrenching; sometimes they are just an excuse.

Many volunteers take on the work because they didn’t realize what is actually involved. And once they do, they have three options: resign, sit on the sidelines and wait until their terms expire, or actually get in the ring. 

It’s said that in any member-based association less than 10% actually show up at the Annual General Meeting and only 2% get involved in its administration. Some of those even need additional persuasion, i.e., their arms twisted. 

Many member associations are regulated professional bodies – think OACETT (Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists), or the College of Psychologists of Ontario – their members are obliged to join the association to assure their accreditation. Hence, the association’s revenues are comparatively secure. And they have a lot of members, so they have the critical mass to hire sufficient professional staff to deliver the desired and necessary services to its members. But even in an association like the Canadian Nurses Association, despite its thousands of members and wide public support, getting members to step up and take on a volunteer role in its governance is likely a challenge.

All associations need a certain amount of structure and management to survive and thrive over the long term. Like start-up entrepreneurial enterprises, you can survive for a while on dreams and adrenalin but eventually you need to delegate operational tasks to professional employees. Volunteers don’t endure.

The Carver Model is seen as the ideal mode of operations for not-for-profit organizations in which the volunteer board gives policy direction but the paid staff are responsible for the successful operations and continuity of the organization. 

Even small neighborhood social clubs – the book club, the bridge club – depend on a certain amount of organization and leadership. They may not need Carver or a charter, but they do need someone to pull it together and sustain interest, else the members drift away and the club closes.

Larger organizations need more structure but they also have a more solid base of funding. A volunteer board can give direction – and volunteer workers can fill the breach – but sustained operations is done by paid staff.

Mid-size organizations in many ways have the worst of both worlds – too big to be a happy local club, too small to hire staff, so the load falls on the unsuspecting volunteers.

Not-for-profit organizations are ultimately as vulnerable to financial stress as any business. Revenue must exceed expenses; deficits/losses may be financed in the short term but over time if the revenue is insufficient to sustain the activities of the enterprise, the activities have to be reduced. Reduced activities (services to members, or customers) may lead to a descending cycle – less perceived value, fewer customers/members, reduced revenue, more reductions in service, eventually, oblivion. Traditional Christian churches are a good example.

Many not-for-profit organizations are seriously underfunded to carry out the purpose of the organization. This is especially the case for mid-sized associations. They cannot afford the necessary paid staff to perform the day-to-day operations of the organization and ensure its future. And so, many of those operational tasks fall to volunteers who will not have the necessary time, energy and skills to substitute for paid professional staff. Volunteers may be very helpful to achieve a short-term project – putting on the annual church bazaar – but become over-extended when it comes to sustaining activities providing ongoing services to other members.

I’m a member of the CAA – the Canadian Authors Association (though I’m also a member of that other CAA – the Canadian Automobile Association). Like the CAA, Canadian Authors relies on annual membership fees as its principal source of revenue to sustain itself. Neither is the CAA, and Canadian Authors, a regulatory body; both rely for their success on engagement of its members. It is critical that the Canadian Author member renews his or her membership each year. (It’s probably important to the Canadian Automobile Association that members renew their memberships too, but there are a lot more people driving cars than writing books.)

Member engagement is important but it takes a special kind of engagement for a member to step up to becoming a volunteer Board Member or serve on a committee.

Once in the ring volunteerism takes on a life of its own. You now have tasks to perform and colleagues who rely on you. You may have been initially motivated by the cause, but the sustaining motivation is your commitment to your fellow volunteers; it’s like soldiers in the field of battle – it may not be a matter of life and death but you don’t want to let your mates down.

It’s also said that if you want something done, give it to a busy person. They have the same amount of time as a non-busy person – 168 hours in a week – but somehow, they find a way to allocate their time, and energy, to meet their obligations.

It’s no surprise then that many (most?) volunteers in NFPs come from the ranks of the recently retired. They have the time, they still have the energy, and they may have a void they need to fill.

Still, regardless of one’s psychological makeup and motivation, volunteering is going to make demands on your time, and the volunteer owes it to himself, and to the organization he is volunteering for, to be sure what is entailed and be prepared to commit to that new demand on his time. He probably owes it to his spouse too. The amount of time will depend on the nature of the work to be done in the role: canvasing a neighbourhood a few hours a week for a couple of weeks for Heart & Stroke, or a political party, is one thing, sitting on the Board of Directors for a not-for-profit organization for a one-year term (or two, or three) is another. Even so, Board work will vary depending on the extent to which the Board is giving direction to a professional staff or giving direction to itself to carry out the work.

If you find you’ve volunteered for an underfunded NFP organization you’re probably wondering ‘there’s another fine mess you’ve got me in, Stanley’. 

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy

But, like the ever-hopeful Mr. Micawber, you say to yourself, something will turn up. 

And something does turn up: an anonymous benefactor donates $2000 allowing you to pay the bills for another month.

Talk about volunteer vicissitudes.

Doug Jordan, reporting to you from Kanata, Canada

© Douglas Jordan & AFS PUBLISHING. All rights reserved. No part of these blogs and newsletters may be reproduced without the express permission of the author and/or the publisher, except upon payment of a small royalty, 5¢. 

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