More thoughts about being someone

But what do we mean when we say volunteers are looking for someone to be?

  • They’re looking for something meaningful of which to be a part.  And it’s not enough for the project to be meaningful at a macro scale (“We’re working to elect Barack Obama”); it has to make sense to the volunteer at a micro scale as well: “Our role is to send volunteers to Iowa.  This is why Iowa needs volunteers, and this is why the Obama campaign needs to win Iowa.”
  • They’re looking for clarity about structure: “This is our task, and this is how we’re going to accomplish it.”  People are reluctant to pick up paintbrushes til they see that the scaffolding has been firmly erected.
  • They’re looking for a way to be indispensable.  This doesn’t have to mean a full-time commitment; it can mean being Jerry the data guy, who once a week produces the computer report that allows us to double-check all our other computer reports, or Deborah the captain of the confirmation team, who comes in for the final three weeks to make sure everything that went before doesn’t fail for lack of logistical support.  As long as the connection is clear between what the volunteer is doing and the ultimate result, indispensability is a virtually limitless commodity.
  • They’re looking for a way to be included.  The Nonprofiteer once organized a speakers’ bureau for an agency whose staff gave her all the meaning, structural clarity and indispensability she could have asked for, at least if by “indispensability” one means “the project wouldn’t exist without this person.”  But the experience was a bust because those self-same staff members regarded the project as superfluous, a frill: if it worked, fine; if not, also fine.  After 18 months of isolated effort, the Nonprofiteer gave up.  Why?  Because if she’d wanted to be alone, she could have stayed home.   “Being someone” means “being someone in someone else’s eyes or plans or life;” “being someone” means “being wanted or needed or missed.”
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2 Responses to “More thoughts about being someone”

  1. Jane Says:

    Hi Nonprofiteer!

    This post seems to be addressed to nonprofits – how they can better meet the desires of their volunteers.

    Do you think you could write a corresponding post about how volunteers can better meet the desires of nonprofits? I know your last post said that we as volunteers need to think more about who we want to be, rather than what we want to do. I’d love an expansion on that.

    I’ve been trying to volunteer with an organization that works with children, or hunger, or the blind, for about 2 years and I keep having near-disastrous experiences on the way to becoming a volunteer. Maybe it’s me? I really want to volunteer with a local organization and have contacted several, but something always seems to go wrong – either the nonprofit doesn’t respond to me or the work they give me doesn’t match my expectations. It’s very frustrating!

    Do you have any thoughts or advice?

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Thanks for pointing out the perspective issue–let me think a bit about how volunteers can best prepare themselves to serve, and I’ll see what I can come up with that’s useful.

    I seriously doubt that your “near-disastrous” experiences are based on something you’re doing wrong–rather, your frustration is so widely felt and expressed that my first impulse was to try to tell nonprofits how to deal better with this valuable resource that they’re wasting. But you’re right that probably there are things prospective volunteers could do to minimize their risks and maximize the likelihood of a good fit; so let me mull it and get back to you ASAP.

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