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Creating a high-commitment volunteer culture
Don't be afraid to ask for a heavy commitment from your volunteers.
If you don't, someone else will.
By Thomas W. McKee


The New Breed of Volunteers—those very busy, cyber-connected, multi-tasked 21st century volunteers--are not afraid of commitment. In fact, today's volunteers almost demand a high level of commitment because they don't want to give time to an organization filled with lazy loafers.

But to create a high-commitment culture, we must tap into the "what's in it for me" drive that motivates the 21st Century volunteer. To understand this culture, look at the Master Gardner program, and then test your volunteer culture with the three "What's in it for me" questions.

What's in it for me and commitment go hand-in-hand.

WHAT'S IN IT FOR ME # 1: Do you offer a "pay off" for your volunteers?

I am not speaking of salary or money. We all know that volunteers don't get paid; however, there is often a "pay off" for volunteer service. A very popular volunteer program is the Master Gardner program offered by many communities. Why would a busy person commit to contribute 50 hours of community volunteer work during the first year and an additional 25 hours of volunteer service every year after? Easy. The pay off is the prestigious distinction of earning a "Master Gardner Designation." To earn that distinction, the volunteer must spend 50 hours taking horticulture classes in addition to a volunteer service requirement.

Each spring a one hour, once a week class is held for fifteen weeks. Applicants must attend all fifteen classes and pay a fee for the materials. The classes are taught by university specialists, horticulture advisors, and community experts. Topics include introduction to horticulture, water and fertilizer management, planting and maintenance of trees, etc. After attending all the sessions and completing all the weekly quizzes and final exam, trainees receive a graduation certificate.

Volunteers are willing to make the commitment to programs like Master Gardner because there is a pay off. When the pay off is worth while for volunteers, they will commit to training, study, dues and even long-term obligations.

WHAT'S IN IT FOR ME # 2: Is there a "feel-good" factor for the volunteer?

Ever stop by a lemonade stand run by a couple of ten year olds and you give them $5.00 or $10.00 for a glass of lemonade and say, "keep the change." As you see their wide eyes and hear them running into the house yelling to their mom, "Look at what we made today," you walk away feeling better than they do.

A primary reason that people volunteer is that it makes them feel good. I know that this sounds somewhat "narcissistic", but it is a reality of life. In America so many of us are blessed, and we are doing so very well compared to the rest of the world that we want to give back. There is hardly a week that goes by that I don't hear some celebrity quoted as saying, "I just wanted to give back." Although most of us are not multi-millionaire celebrities, we are still so blessed that we want to give back.

Master Gardeners is not just about learning horticulture. It is about serving the community. The program was developed in the late 1970s by an extension professional in Washington who wanted to train volunteers to handle telephone inquiries. Today many local communities have Master Gardner programs. One of the largest programs is in Texas--growing at a rate of 15 per cent a year.

In the urban centers, Master Gardeners are also helping communities feed neighbors in need. The Texas Gulf Coast Chapter in Houston developed several community gardens including two in the shadows of the downtown skyscrapers. The Christ Community Service Center (CCSC) and Bonita Street Recovery House both have community gardens. The two gardens together comprise 1,760 square feet of raised beds; fruit trees provide ornamental landscaping. The Bonita House Garden feeds its residents, and the CCSC distributes the fresh produce to indigent families who receive emergency assistance through their Operation Sunshine program.

WHAT'S IN IT FOR ME # 3: Are your taking advantage of the slash phenomenon?

Being a volunteer is not about multi-tasking. It's about managing the slash. The 21st century busy volunteer has a new moniker called "The Slash."

What is a slash?

In fact, you probably are a slash. If you are a business woman/girl scout leader/mother or a businessman/Little league coach/board member, then you are like millions of other Americans who need more than one label to define themselves.

Marci Alboher has written a new book, One Person/Multiple Careers: How the Slash Effect Can Work for You (Warner Business Books).

Marci says, "The slash is a phenomenon that's sweeping the work force today. It's about people wanting to lead more multifaceted lives."

What Marci wrote about multiple careers is also true about volunteering. When my son Jonathan and I were doing research for our book, The New Breed—Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer (to be out in November of this year), we found that today many people are volunteering for multiple organizations.

Some think that the Master Gardner program is for the retired, but in actuality about 50% of the volunteer Master Gardeners are people who work at home or have flexible schedules to meet the training and volunteer requirements. People want to be active in giving. It is part of life and volunteering is a growing popular way to provide that opportunity.

So what? What does this mean?

I have several conclusions
  1. People don't mind making commitments. Don't be afraid to require training, and a commitment volunteer period -- BUT
  2. Look at your mission. Do you have a mission that will excite certain people to make a difference? Your mission should offer a pay-off that feels good. People don't want to make a contribution—they want to make a difference"
  3. Are you flexible? The master garden has flexible scheduling after the training.
  4. Be sure to lay out off of the requirements in the beginning. Never use the four words that the New Volunteer hates—"Oh, by the way." See Tom's article at www.volunteerpower.com/articles/OhByTheWay.asp

Thomas W. McKee

Tom McKee Tom McKee is president and owner of www.volunteerpower.com a leadership development firm specializing in volunteerism. He has over 40 years of experience in volunteer leadership. Tom began his speaking career to one of the most difficult audiences-high school assemblies. Since those days he has addressed over 1 million people spanning three continents-Africa, Europe and the U.S. Over the past 40 years he has trained over 100,000 leaders how to manage the chaos of change in an organization.

The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer Tom and his son Jonathan are authors of the book, The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer (Group Publishing). The New Breed details the new cultural shift in volunteer management and also includes valuable, applicable resources for leaders, including job descriptions, icebreakers, team-builders and community-building activities, equipping leaders to move forward with confidence and empower valuable volunteers.

About The New Breed:
The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer by Jonathan McKee and Thomas W. McKee. Group Publishing. Paperback, 176 pages. ISBN: 978-0764435645. The book can be ordered at www.volunteerpower.com.