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Is Everyone Volunteer Material?

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | June 23, 2015

Some historians look back at citizen involvement in the Revolutionary War and write about the “three percent”.  Although we have a romantic view of each citizen rising up in the formation of a free and independent nation, most agree that it was actually a relatively small portion of the population that actually did anything.  Communities, even though they might use different vernacular, often cite similar involvement percentages.  A small number of dedicated individuals do the bulk of the work to improve a community, volunteer at non-profits and generally make things better.

The problem with a small percentage of “doers” supporting larger goals is fairly obvious.  Volunteers can get burned out, frustrated or over-utilized.  Within the ranks of what are technically volunteers, there are subgroups that can define the effectiveness of the overall grass roots effort of a community.

Effective volunteers provide three basic components (or a combination of any of these three).  I’ve heard these traits referred to as the “three T’s of volunteers”.

1.  Time These folks provide labor necessary to make events run, clean up the community, run registrations, set up activities and much more.  The providers of “sweat equity” take theoretical concepts and make them reality.  It’s not always glamorous work, but without people willing to dedicate the time, nothing happens.

2.  Talent – Professionals that can help with accounting, legal work, marketing, architecture, engineering or a host of other professional activities are very valuable in maintaining community organizations and helping them grow the correct way.  Talent can create efficiency and effectiveness within organizations, activities and events.

3.  Treasure –  Money does make the world go round, but beyond simply writing checks, some volunteers have the ability to mitigate expenses or provide goods or services that can make organizations successful, events happen and communities improve.

If three percent of the people are doing “stuff” (for the record, we think we have a higher percentage of people volunteering in Emporia), then how do we reach out to the other 97%?  Usually, you can show people the opportunities that exist, and then its really up to them.  A quick qualifier- most people do things for their work or their immediate family, and that’s not the type of volunteerism we are talking about.  We are discussing the “no immediate tangible benefit, just doing stuff to help out” type of volunteering.  While you are looking for the good volunteers, remember that the wrong types of people in the room can do more harm then good.  Just like we have the “three T’s” for great volunteers, we have the “three S’s” for some personality types that are more problematic.

1.  Suggestors – Finding people that can identify problems is a good thing IF they have some context about that area and are willing to help make changes necessary to solve the problem.  Simply talking about issues without taking any action drags the rest of the group down because nothing is getting accomplished.  These types of volunteers are sometimes the “pseudo-experts”- people that don’t really have a solid grasp of the concepts being discussed, but they believe it is important to interject their opinion anyway.

2.  Sullen –  You may not want too many people that are always just a barrel of sunshine, because volunteer groups are there to work on real issues, but you can’t have individuals that are persistently negative either.  You have to strike a balance.  The sullen are sometimes referred to as C.A.V.E. people (citizens against virtually everything) because they can find a problem with anything at all (and they can find problems with any accompanying solution).  Somewhere in the middle of the nexus between the CAVE people and Sunshine pumpers lie the realists that understand opportunities and problems, and they want to find (and implement) strategies based on those observations.

3.  “Squirrel!” –  This personality type gets easily distracted, and has a tendency to distract others.  Great volunteers don’t have to be hyper-focused, and it’s generally good to have some fun when your are volunteering, but easy distractions lead to a conversion from selfless to selfish pretty quickly.  It’s pretty easy to find a lot of ways to volunteer in Emporia any given weekend, but if you’ve got someone saying to stellar volunteers “why don’t we spend the weekend in Kansas City instead” (squirrel!), volunteers start to drop off.  In conversations with both in-town residents and out-of-town visitors, people talk about how Emporia has become much “cooler” in recent years.  Big events, new eating options, updated nightlife choices and more are bringing new people to the downtown (and community in general).  That’s a good thing.  But, many communities have “spurts” of improvement followed by a struggle to maintain that improvement simply because a new consumer base taking advantage of the new “cool” had established entertainment, shopping and dining patterns that took them away from the area on a consistent basis, and they take a portion of the “doer” population with them.  It’s okay to go have fun traveling on occasion, but we can’t lose sight of the work ahead of us required to continually improve our community.

Once volunteers are identified communities have a responsibility to set clear and measurable objectives that volunteers can accomplish that the volunteers actually WANT to accomplish.  Organizations have the responsibility to create a culture of tangibly doing things.  Without the “doer” mentality, communities are doomed to a cycle of endless meetings that talk about how things should be as opposed to the who, what, when, where, how (and how much money) behind getting things actually accomplished.  Communities that start build the culture of volunteering EARLY (with children) are typically more successful in fostering the culture of volunteering, because if you haven’t established the volunteer mind set by the time you are thirty, its probably never going to be “natural” for an individual.

We need to recognize the “doers” in a community by the tangible impacts of their work, and hold them up as an example to others as we encourage other “doers” to jump in and help out in areas that are outside of their work or immediate family impact zone.  In essence, we need to create testimonials through the examples of those which we hope are exemplified.

Community cultures change over time.  We understand the magnified importance of those that choose to be effective volunteers for local organizations or the community as a whole.  However, there is a lot of pressure by people outside the normal volunteer circles on great community volunteers to just go “live life”, “have fun” or other false equivalencies that take people out of service mode.  When people avoid selflessness, a community and its organizations suffer.  So, help identify those great volunteers.  Reinforce volunteerism in others.  Lead in a “shoulder to shoulder” strategy to help get others involved, and help us maintain and expand a selfless culture to move Emporia towards a brighter future.

See this article and much more in this week’s Emporia Main Street E-Newsletter!

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.


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