Eldering and Volunteering

By Jim Selman | Bio

Tough times can bring out the best in people. In these days of financial, environmental and social challenges, more and more of us are stepping forward and asking “What can I do?” Wherever we look, people and organizations are taking on problems and working hard to create a better world. Older people are volunteering more that ever. From an eldering perspective, they want a chance to make a difference.

People have an extraordinary capacity to go beyond what is reasonable to create breakthroughs—and achieve unprecedented results.  Volunteers are often prepared to make an ‘unreasonable’ commitment when they offer to work with an organization, because of a strong belief in its mission. When not-for-profit organizations settle for being reasonable, the inspirational nature of a powerful vision or mission is lost. Much of the activities become gestures, token efforts without real possibility or commitment to resolve the issue for which the organization exists. In other words, the organization and volunteers are ‘playing small’ relative to what is possible and the scale of the challenge.

Three factors are central to building and sustaining a powerful—and empowering—volunteer program. 

  1. The organization must offer opportunities for volunteers to participate, rather than ‘need’ volunteers. Need-based approaches motivate people through guilt.  This not only weakens the power of the organization’s vision, but also undermines the commitment of the individuals involved.
  2. The primary role of those managing the organization must be to empower volunteers (as well as employees). The leadership of the organization must be willing to coach people, rather than be ‘in control’ of what happens.
  3. A volunteer culture needs to be intentionally created based on the vision and authentic commitments of both staff and volunteers working together to create a common future.  Create an organizational culture in which people choose to volunteer because they experience making a difference and in which their contribution is recognized and appreciated. Create a culture where people matter! 

I often challenge not-for-profit organizations to consider if their vision is big enough. Is their organization creating objectives that are worthy of a volunteer’s time? I have on my desk an anonymous quotation that always reminds me that the details of my vision are not as important as creating a vision that is big enough to include and inspire others.

“Make no little dreams, they have no magic in the minds of men.”



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