Finding the True Meaning of Volunteering

Everybody wants to feel valued. When I speak, I want my remarks to be noticed. If I participate, I want my efforts to matter. But present day conveniences allow for inertia to leave me feeling fully engaged. Checking Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, emails, texts, Instagram and auto reminders from several meet up groups…I am blitzed with interaction – all this from the predawn comfort of my bed!  Choosing between cozy fireside TV binge watching or getting out into the cold winter air to grow my character… I admit I want external validation!!!

This public admission from the director of a robust volunteer program, 1,500 members strong and growing? Blasphemy!  I am a paid cheerleader for stepping out of my safety zone, driving to a building filled with strangers and working on behalf of people you don’t know. Volunteering is it’s own reward, right? As I perused the archives of E-volunteerism (an international volunteer association), Googled “volunteering”, surfed through LinkedIn’s Association of Volunteer Managers and finally reviewed McClelland & Atkinson’s Model for Motivation(1964), I came to the conclusion that predictable volunteer behaviors are – unpredictable!

A common theory in professional volunteer motivation is to reward or celebrate the volunteer cohort. At Loaves & Fishes, we serve people who are struggling to overcome food insecurity and are working to achieve self-sufficiency. As volunteers learn of their situations, it can be heart-wrenching. Therefore, I create happy reasons for volunteers to return. The Gold Star Club is for those that have given 100+ hours in a 12 month period, and our “Top 5” is a monthly list of volunteers with the most hours contributed.

1554566_10152328924582426_1936597637973472773_nParties are a great way to celebrate the efforts of our volunteers. Our annual picnic boasts food, drink, music, and prizes. For Volunteer Appreciation Week 2014, we honored our volunteers by throwing pizza parties, presenting a gratitude video and creating a rotating photo wall. Also in the past year, we have invited our volunteers to baseball outings, shows at the theater, beer festivals, 18 holes of golf and bowling. Our building is no longer filled with strangers, we have become better acquainted with each other to create a friendly atmosphere.

But are these celebrations what brings our volunteers back?  Are the parties, gold stars, and frequent group outings what spurs a 91 year old man to volunteer for 3 hours of standing as he passes out food? Does a family of 5 return every week to volunteer outside in parking, at a table sorting vegetables or restocking shelves because they can earn a gold star? When I see a working mom volunteering with their busy teen, I know they don’t have time to come to our socials….yet they keep coming back.

Maybe volunteering really is it’s own reward.

Shelly Schmitz
Director of Volunteer Engagement