WHAT MAKES A GOOD VOLUNTEER?
By Sarah H. Elliston
“Nobody volunteers to do a bad job.” Susan Ellis, energizeinc.com
This says it all. Volunteers have a myriad of motivations and if these motivations are understood and planned for, they will probably do a good job and be good volunteers.
What is a good volunteer? An unscientific survey of volunteers and coordinators agreed that a good volunteer is one who shows up on time and does the tasks assigned, pleasantly. Other desired characteristics include: creativity, energy, flexibility, selflessness, and acceptance of others.
Where do good volunteers show up? We serve in schools, nursing homes and senior centers, places of worship, disease-serving agencies, organizations providing food, shelter and help for the less fortunate, and hospitals. We help victims of crime and abuse. We serve museums, zoos, symphonies, orchestras and ballets, in all levels of government, and in sports leagues. Volunteers organize alumni associations, they manage fraternal organizations and business networking organizations. They volunteer for political campaigns. This is a miniscule list – people volunteer everywhere.
One place volunteers show up is in our National Parks.
With more than 400 trails, parks and historic sites the National Park Service (NPS) has always relied on volunteers to achieve their mission. Last year over 250,000 people volunteered to help the NPS preserve the parks and sites. Called VIPs (Volunteers in Parks) they perform tasks as varied as guiding on nature trails, staffing gift shops, maintaining trails, cleaning and servicing mechanical equipment, and working in libraries. Some stay in shelters and provide support for camp grounds and RV areas. There are artists-in-residence programs, scientific studies needing volunteer assistants, and bicycling clubs who help administer park rules. There are one-time service projects such as planting trees or shrubs, or clearing trails or cleaning up waterfronts. There are special activities for Girl Scout, Ranger and Boy Scout programs, and even opportunities for International Students.
And why do good volunteers show up? Dr. William Glasser tells us that all humans are motivated to act to meet five basic genetic needs that are in our brains from birth. An attempt to meet these needs drive our behavior. The needs are Love and Belonging, Fun, Freedom, Empowerment and Survival. The needs are the same for all of us but what we think will meet those needs is different for each of us
A good volunteer’s motivation will cover all or some of these motivational needs. A VIP in Clarkdale, Arizona is helping at the Montezuma Well traditional garden describes why she likes to be involved. “I never gardened before. I come once or twice a week to plant, weed and help harvest vegetables and flowers. It’s a physical activity and I have made friends with other VIPs. There are some people that I only see here. If I didn’t volunteer I would miss them and the physical activity. I also enjoy being able to tell visitors about what we are doing. I have learned a lot about gardening here.”
This volunteer is having fun learning new information and making new friends while providing a service and meeting survival needs by being physically active. There is something empowering about watching plants sprout and caring for them as they grow knowing that you have supported another living thing.
Many companies invite their employees to provide service to their communities. Dennis volunteered with his company, participating in a Volunteer Cleanup at the Yamacraw Bridge Cleanup in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Oneida, Tennessee. He already rock climbed and kayaked in the park and he describes it as one of the most beautiful places in the world. He related that the volunteer project felt great not only because he got to know people in his company that he didn’t know before but also because he was helping preserve a beloved wilderness area. He got to be physically active and he was giving back.
This volunteer project met all five needs for Dennis and the participants: being active helped with health, working together built belonging and fun, volunteers felt empowered when they saw what they had achieved, choosing which tasks they wanted to do bolstered the need for freedom, and the result was giving mother nature a helping hand. Meeting needs like this is a guarantee of having good volunteers. And Dennis will do it again.
Jennifer volunteers every week as a guide at the Antietam National Battlefield. I experienced her engaging talk as we walked the length and breadth of the area of one of the bloodiest battles in Civil War. I was amazed at the depth of her knowledge. She told me that she had studied the material and actually passed a test to qualify as a guide. It was a challenge that she loved. She thrived meeting people from around the world, answering their questions and being able to help them know what happened there.
The opportunity was fun because she got to learn and share information she valued, she felt a sense of empowerment when she became a guide and a sense of connection with the visitors.
Tom and Janice travel every summer to be resident managers at a campground in Grand Teton National Park. They have been doing it since they retired, showing up each spring in their RV. They love representing the VIPs and working every day to make sure the visitors at the campground have a good experience as well as respect the environment. They told me that they find some visitors challenging but have never had any real trouble. They reported that the opportunity to serve their country’s parks was empowering. Their goal is to help visitors leave every campground a little better than they found it.
There is little doubt that volunteers improve our world. The interesting thing is that volunteers receive as much as they give. They show up because they are committed, they do the work and look for ways to connect and feel a part of the organization because it meets a genetic need. They stay because they have fun, feel connected, feel empowered and because they are given choices. Finally, studies have shown that people who volunteer live longer and are happier so volunteering meets the genetic need for survival. A good volunteer is one who recognizes the need to be of service to others and finds a volunteer opportunity that will be need satisfying in all these ways.
Sarah Elliston is the author of “Lessons from a Difficult Person – How to Deal With People Like Us”, and is a Certified Volunteer Administrator, the highest level of professional certification in the field. A faculty member of the William Glasser Institute, Sarah is a highly successful workshop leader and trainer, who is certified in Values Realization, Parent Effectiveness Training and Reality Therapy. www.SarahElliston.com