What Makes A Volunteer-Based Organization Successful?
Volunteers have become an integral part of the ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. In my hometown of Kerala, which had one of the most inspiring responses to the pandemic, more than 200,000 volunteers were at the front line. Quantifying the impact of volunteering is a herculean task. This begs the question: What makes a volunteer-based organization successful?
Peter Drucker tried to convert volunteer efforts into the following monetary form: “If we put even minimum wage to the time spent by volunteers, it would be 12% of GNP compared to 2.5% we give in the money.” Perhaps that percentage should be even higher as we continue to see a surge in highly educated volunteers, many in managerial or professional jobs, using their knowledge to support their volunteering interests. For example, a software professional in a multinational who is a weekend volunteer is keener to build a website or an app for free for a non-profit rather than paint the walls of an orphanage.
This transformation from well-meaning amateurs to trained professionals will have a far-reaching impact for both businesses and societies. Interestingly, many corporate entities not only allow their employees to volunteer for a fixed number of days but also fund their non-profit ventures.
And let’s not forget volunteers have always played an important role in building resilient communities:
- More than 109 million full-time workers make up the global volunteer workforce (as per the 2018 State of the World’s Volunteerism Report: “The thread that binds”)
- 30% of volunteering occurs formally through organizations, associations, and interest groups
- 70% occurs through informal engagement between individuals
- 57% of all informal volunteers are women
I have been running my non-profit organization, The India Inclusion Foundation, with the audacious aim of making India Inclusive by 2030. All its activities are run entirely by professionals who are volunteers. Much to people’s astonishment, the Foundation seamlessly pulls off top-quality events, awareness campaigns, and community drives, without having a single paid worker.
How does a volunteer-based organization work? Why do hundreds of volunteers work throughout the year, without money or glory, to organize massively successful events that many paid professionals would struggle to do?
In my journey of building a volunteer-based organization, I have learnt from the best — ServiceSpace founded by Nipun Mehta and Naatakfounded by Sujit Saraf, both running successfully for over two decades. While the former, with millions of followers, focuses on spreading positivity and aiding inner transformation in society through small acts of service and kindness, the latter is a Bay Area theatre company that has staged over 70 productions. Both are self-sustained, well respected, and have created massive impacts.
Here are some experience-based insights on volunteer-based organizations:
1. Volunteering helps the volunteer as much or more than the community they serve, and intrinsic motivation is regenerative.
2. Volunteering is free, but other forms of currencies are in play: developing deeper friendships, networking, increased happiness quotient, and most importantly, evolving to become the best possible version of oneself.
3. Volunteering works on centralizing purpose while decentralizing power.
4. While there are no formal power structures, it’s often a small core group that holds everything together, with many others contributing at different levels. Since the group is usually self-selected based on passion and purpose, you often get the right people.
5. Often, volunteering activity becomes the person’s primary identity.
What makes a volunteer-based organization successful?
Primarily, volunteers need to believe in the core mission and purpose because the rewards that “belief” brings are their only incentive. However, the intensity of that belief can vary. Also, volunteers experience the same pulls and pushes that paid employees would: career choices, family responsibilities, and the need for financial assistance. Volunteer-based organizations must recognize these concerns and try to mitigate them through appreciation of volunteer work, creation of roles within the organization, and devolution of some ‘power and authority’ in the absence of monetary benefits.
‘Promotion’ in a non-hierarchical organization like The India Inclusion Foundation only means critical roles, mentoring opportunities, or the chance to become curators. We encourage “pairing” because working in pairs spurs radical ideas, imparts intense learning, and brings in continuous improvements. There is “role rotation” too: all event curators are changed every 2-3 years. This provides everyone with broader experience than they might get in their workplace, where the desire for efficiency often causes management to shoe-horn them into narrow tasks.
Building redundancies is important, as volunteers often dial up or dial down their involvement. The unsaid rule within our foundation is that you must contribute to remain in the core group. Ultimately, volunteers should believe in their individual role but share common goals. They chose to volunteer mainly to give back to society and try to improve conditions within it. All we need to do is ensure that they continue to share our vision and retain the passion they already have!