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Positioning Volunteers for Success: Advocacy

Posted on October 30, 2015

There is a powerful message in our work. A message of hope, resiliency, and growth. Yet it is often hard to put the impact our work has on the health of our clients and the larger community into words, videos, or other media. In many ways, you have to see the work to understand the message.

Volunteers get to really see the message, not just read the mission or attend the annual gala. Many times they understand the message better than our funders, the community, or even our board of directors. Most volunteer experiences leave two impressions on people. The first impression is that the clients and patients we are serving have tremendous value well beyond the labels (homelessness, addict, poor, etc.) that society puts on them. Second, the volunteers can see the true challenges our clients are struggling to overcome, and that resources or community understanding and/or will is lacking in order to fully provide paths out of poverty and pain.

Volunteers carry this message with them back into the communities in which they live and work, communities who too often do not understand the message. We often miss an opportunity by not giving volunteers action items of what exactly they can do back in their communities to advocate for change. This can leave the volunteer communicating to friends and co-workers only the negatives of the situations they witness.

Unfortunately, this communication of experience without context can further the misperception that nothing can really be done to help “solve” the problems impacting clients, because their pain and struggles are so great. This can be counterproductive to our work for real change in our communities. We can’t blame the volunteers, as they often do not have the education, experience, and training to put clients’ struggles into a larger psychological, biological, and social context.

In volunteers, we have an opportunity to get our message out into communities where we normally have limited or no access. We have to pay great attention to the message that is taken into these environments. While we do not have a great deal of time to train volunteers, most of us could find a few minutes to provide a context for the challenges facing our clients. The goal is understanding and empathy, not pity.

With this context, the volunteer experience can unleash a motivation to invest further in our missions, and hopefully can elicit the question, “What more can I do?” I’ve see a single volunteer experience turn into tens of thousands of dollars in donations, as a volunteer rallies their community to support the mission. However, even though we all would love a large donation, I am afraid we’ve been missing the real opportunity to maximize this motivation for real change.

I can’t help but wonder how many of these new donors supported our mission financially, while also continuing to support the policies and mindsets that created the problems our missions are trying to minimize and eliminate. This is not a judgement on the donors, as they often do not have the context to understand the real issues. I believe this can change if we take a moment before the volunteer’s experience to educate them on the impact of trauma, poverty, and other issues facing the clients they meet.

Another opportunity we often miss is after the volunteer experience. Taking a moment with volunteers to process what the experience was like for them can allow us to help ensure that they walk away with a more nuanced understanding of the clients, and behaviors, they came into contact with during their work. We could be helping them shape a more complete message to take back into their communities.

Second, we can provide a path for their motivation to further social change and improve the lives of those they interacted with. Feeding the hungry on Thanksgiving, shopping for toys over the holidays, a cash donation before the tax deadlines – these are all great things, but this type of action is often one of pity. A brief conclusion about next steps and printed material about “What you can do!” can help to channel motivation into social action. What if every volunteer called their city council member or state senator to support affordable housing, better funding for schools, or job training opportunities for those in child welfare?

Volunteer advocacy is a mix of knowledge, message, experience, and motivation. With a few minutes and some creative thinking, we can turn an often-overlooked advocacy resource into a powerhouse for social change.

Positioning Volunteers for Success: Advocacy

Posted on October 30, 2015

There is a powerful message in our work. A message of hope, resiliency, and growth. Yet it is often hard to put the impact our work has on the health of our clients and the larger community into words, videos, or other media. In many ways, you have to see the work to understand the message.

Volunteers get to really see the message, not just read the mission or attend the annual gala. Many times they understand the message better than our funders, the community, or even our board of directors. Most volunteer experiences leave two impressions on people. The first impression is that the clients and patients we are serving have tremendous value well beyond the labels (homelessness, addict, poor, etc.) that society puts on them. Second, the volunteers can see the true challenges our clients are struggling to overcome, and that resources or community understanding and/or will is lacking in order to fully provide paths out of poverty and pain.

Volunteers carry this message with them back into the communities in which they live and work, communities who too often do not understand the message. We often miss an opportunity by not giving volunteers action items of what exactly they can do back in their communities to advocate for change. This can leave the volunteer communicating to friends and co-workers only the negatives of the situations they witness.

Unfortunately, this communication of experience without context can further the misperception that nothing can really be done to help “solve” the problems impacting clients, because their pain and struggles are so great. This can be counterproductive to our work for real change in our communities. We can’t blame the volunteers, as they often do not have the education, experience, and training to put clients’ struggles into a larger psychological, biological, and social context.

In volunteers, we have an opportunity to get our message out into communities where we normally have limited or no access. We have to pay great attention to the message that is taken into these environments. While we do not have a great deal of time to train volunteers, most of us could find a few minutes to provide a context for the challenges facing our clients. The goal is understanding and empathy, not pity.

With this context, the volunteer experience can unleash a motivation to invest further in our missions, and hopefully can elicit the question, “What more can I do?” I’ve see a single volunteer experience turn into tens of thousands of dollars in donations, as a volunteer rallies their community to support the mission. However, even though we all would love a large donation, I am afraid we’ve been missing the real opportunity to maximize this motivation for real change.

I can’t help but wonder how many of these new donors supported our mission financially, while also continuing to support the policies and mindsets that created the problems our missions are trying to minimize and eliminate. This is not a judgement on the donors, as they often do not have the context to understand the real issues. I believe this can change if we take a moment before the volunteer’s experience to educate them on the impact of trauma, poverty, and other issues facing the clients they meet.

Another opportunity we often miss is after the volunteer experience. Taking a moment with volunteers to process what the experience was like for them can allow us to help ensure that they walk away with a more nuanced understanding of the clients, and behaviors, they came into contact with during their work. We could be helping them shape a more complete message to take back into their communities.

Second, we can provide a path for their motivation to further social change and improve the lives of those they interacted with. Feeding the hungry on Thanksgiving, shopping for toys over the holidays, a cash donation before the tax deadlines – these are all great things, but this type of action is often one of pity. A brief conclusion about next steps and printed material about “What you can do!” can help to channel motivation into social action. What if every volunteer called their city council member or state senator to support affordable housing, better funding for schools, or job training opportunities for those in child welfare?

Volunteer advocacy is a mix of knowledge, message, experience, and motivation. With a few minutes and some creative thinking, we can turn an often-overlooked advocacy resource into a powerhouse for social change.

3 responses to “Positioning Volunteers for Success: Advocacy”

  1. Jeff Foreman says:

    Great column – very well put. In our policy work at Care for the Homeless in New York City we really rely on volunteers. I appreciated and “felt” your comments. The concept and phrase “experience without context” well expresses the concern, and the tremendous opportunity, we have. Thanks for this column Matt.

  2. Barbara DiPietro says:

    Completely agree, Matt! Especially appreciate the action steps you outline to ensure that we can maximize the volunteers experience. I also heartily echo your point about some donors supporting our organization, but also supporting the public policies that create poverty & homelessness in the first place–better engagement and education of these stakeholders could help curb this practice. Thanks for this blog!

  3. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    Matt, thanks for your swishes, bank shots, hook shots and drives to the basket, as it were. From the standpoint of a person experiencing homelessness, I’d add skills development to Barbara’s “engagement and education.” Volunteering is, of course, a chance to contribute, but to also learn new skills. The new interactions can lead to mutual growth and the creation of something new. From donors to consumers, learning opportunities present occasions for fresh action.

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