Volunteers Build Community Capacity

Posted: August 13, 2014

The more people are involved in supporting the mission of an organization or the vision of a community, the stronger that community is. Volunteers learn about non-profit and municipal services through volunteering. They practice leadership skills. They get things done.
Two generations working together get to know each other.

Two generations working together get to know each other.

"Why would anyone do something for which you are not paid?" I heard this question in Kyrgyzstan. A friend heard it in China. Yet, when I ask if they would cook a meal and take it to a sick neighbor, of course, they agreed that would happen. That's volunteerism. Some cultures don't think of volunteerism the same we do in the West.

Volunteers are everywhere in our communities. They help kids with homework, work to invigorate main street economies, stock donations at a food pantry, assist visitors at a festival, staff municipal hearing and advisory boards, promote tourism, assist senior citizens with tax reports, advise entrepreneurs, teach home gardeners, offer fields to use in crop research, serve on the board of the local library or crisis center, monitor neighborhoods for unusual activity and many more tasks.

Some organizations identify a person to manage volunteers, but other groups are less formal. An individual may decide to recruit friends to clean up a section of a nearby river. Management of volunteers, no matter how formal or informal the group, includes some key practices.

Every volunteer wants to know what he or she is being asked to do, how long it will take (one hour, one day, ongoing once a week or month), and WIIFM (What's in it for me?). That information can be shared verbally, but in a formal setting, a task description will have laid out this information in writing.

By the way, WIIFM might be different for different recruits. For a college student majoring in education, volunteering to work at a youth day camp or a township recreation program might yield a recommendation or a resume entry. For a retired person volunteering at the same program, it might be a social opportunity to stay "young" and engaged with kids in the community.

Every volunteer likes to know he or she made a difference. It might be the homework club asking each child to create a thank you care for his or her tutor. It could be a verbal acknowledgement from a supervisor on some specific task well done. This is different from a perfunctory Thank You. Acknowledgement of volunteer efforts and outcomes on social media, a website, or in a newsletter work well. Of course, a handwritten note of thanks is worth its weight in gold.

Whether you belong to a formal organization that depends on volunteers to help carry out its mission or you are part of an informal group that cannot do its work without volunteers, Penn State Extension offers classes in volunteer management as well as dealing with four generations of volunteers.