By Frank Marangos D.Min., Ed.D.
Volunteerism may be defined as the deliberate unpaid activity of helping a community, group, or individual of one’s own choosing. It is the policy or practice of contributing time or talent for charitable, educational, or other worthwhile community pursuits. It can be described as community service, activism, pro-bono work, and civic engagement. Whatever idiom is selected, volunteerism: (a) benefits the community, (b) is gratis, (c) is not compulsory, (d) promotes human dignity and equality, and (e) spiritually enriches those who serve. Appraised at an annual value of $175 billion, volunteerism serves as a key component of civic life whose per-hour contribution is estimated at $22.14 by Independent Sector, the leading Washington-based coalition of nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs in America.
According to the latest report co-issued by the Center on Nonprofits & Philanthropy (CNP) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the volunteer rates for both men and women (22.2% and 28.4%, respectively) declined for the year ending September 2013. Women continued to volunteer at a higher rate than men across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics. While 35-44 year-olds were the most likely age group to volunteer (30.6%) rates were lowest among 20-24 year-olds (18.5%). Married persons volunteered at a higher rate (30.7%) in 2013 than those who had never married (20%).
Apart from its civic and economic impact, an essential characteristic of volunteerism is the personal awareness of an external world comprised of diverse penuries. It is the recognition that self is not the center of reality but responsible for attending to the wellbeing of others. This is the one of the primary reasons why the universal practice of Christian initiation entails two interconnected sacraments, namely Baptism and Chrismation. While immersion into the font of Holy Baptism is understood by Christian theologians as restoring the authenticity of life anointing with the sacred oil of Holy Chrismation provides the sanctifying power for making God’s love present to others. Without this reorientation of reaching upward to God and outward into activity on behalf of others, human nature remains juvenile, stuck in the shallow illusion of self-centered importance, squandering the possibilities that authentic life proposes.
A preeminent example of the other-centered and sacrificial characteristics of volunteerism is the Filipino tradition of “Bayanihan.” Derived from the word “bayani,” meaning town or community, “Bayanihan” (pronounced “buy-uh-nee-hun”) literally refers to the spirit of communal unity and personal heroic succor. Although “Bayanihan” can manifest itself in many forms, the custom is most clearly and impressively displayed when an entire Filipino community literally joins hands to relocate a neighbor family, their home, and possessions after personal injury and/or an environmental calamity.
Without the expectation of recognition or personal gain, volunteers carefully place long bamboo poles length-wise and cross-wise under a “bahay kubo” (traditional bamboo house) and then carry the structure to its new location. Irrespective of the bamboo’s inherent strength, it frequently takes twenty or more stout porters, working in choreographed unison, to carry an entire house. During the festive procession, the community marks an appropriate walking cadence by singing songs and providing encouragement to the steadfast volunteers. At the end of the day, the newly located family expresses gratitude by hosting a celebratory meal for the entire community.
Selected as the official appellation of the national dance company of the Philippines, “Bayanihan” is a favorite subject of authors, poets, and photojournalists. In fact, an impressive snapshot of the inspiring Filipino tradition can be found in the 1977 March publication of National Geographic Magazine. Moreover, apart from its artistic inspiration, sociological impact, and unique application of rattan, a careful review of the “Bayanihan” custom provides contemporary non-profit leaders the symbolic “bamboo” for fashioning a framework for the effective management of their volunteers. What follows is a brief outline of the “Bayanihan” inspired OINOS Volunteer Management System (O-VMS) that includes five functions: (a) recruitment, (b) refinement, (c) recognition, (d) retention, and (e) replication.
Recruitment. A most important resource of any nonprofit entity is the capacity of its volunteer collective. A primary function of philanthropic leadership, therefore, is the recruitment of a steady influx of potential collaborators who have been appropriately motivated to accept a personalized invitation to help advance an agency’s strategic vision.
To do so, nonprofit leaders must craft a culture wherein the distinct mission and core values of their respective organizations are inspirationally communicated and vibrantly experienced. Selecting the most effective leadership approach is the first step of such volunteer management. Leadership styles that discourage people from service include: (a) emperor – makes all significant decisions and withholds all authority from others, (b) achiever – feels compelled to do all the work, encouraging people to become passive rather than active, (c) sleeper – stands aside and does nothing, allowing others to lead, and (d) manipulator – uses people to accomplish what he/she desires to accomplish. In contrast, a “banyai” does not use volunteers to serve his/her ambitions, but rather, provides a sincere model of servant leadership for others to emulate.
According to of Office of Research and Policy Development of the Corporation for National and Community Service (2013), new volunteer talent can be prospected among retired baby boomers, young adults (millennials), and religious organizations. One of the best strategies that religious, nonprofit, and other philanthropic leaders can use to engage potential collaborators from these demographic categories is the creation of vibrant experiences that nurture strong emotional attachments and more sustainable commitments between volunteers and the organization. By gradually increasing responsibility, tailoring assignments to match volunteer interests, and providing appropriate training opportunities, philanthropic organizations increase their chances of recruiting and retaining more of their first-time volunteers.
Another valuable strategy for the recruitment of new volunteers is storytelling. Like older members of Filipino communities who most certainly share personal accounts of past “Bayanihan” episodes at evening celebratory gatherings, the best method for effectively communicating such commentaries is the use of current volunteers willing to passionately share their experiences with others. Since the story of service is the story of life satisfaction, volunteer profiles can additionally be posted on organizational websites to demonstrate how the act of volunteering actually serves the volunteer as well as a nonprofit’s noble cause.
Finally, attracting and recruiting new volunteers, may also be facilitated by linking nonprofit causes to well-established community entities. By leveraging this most recent trend, nonprofit leaders increase opportunities for religious, business, and civic groups to approach their agencies in the spirit of entrepreneurial volunteerism. While such independently proposed relationships are more difficult to manage, they nonetheless inject new ideas and present creative opportunities for collaboration.
Refinement. Apart from native communal connotations, it is significant that the word “bayani” can also be used to express the concept of heroism. However, while the Western understanding of a “hero” is often stamped with deity-like mythological qualities, the Filipino understanding of “bayani” is counterbalanced with notions of modesty and humility. To qualify as a “bayani,” an individual must be willing to surrender themselves in the service of others. In the classic “Bayanihan” tradition each individual carries a portion of the weight of his or her neighbor’s house. By lightening the load for the others in such an arduous fashion, each porter becomes a hero. This is the core value of being “bayani,” the recognition of and deference to a noble concentration greater than self.
Initially recruited, volunteers must subsequently be provided appropriate means for developing heroic “bayani-like” refinements. In addition to inspiring others, volunteers must personally cultivate (a) determination; (b) perseverance; (c) courage; (d) diligence; (e) enthusiasm; and (f) humility. Only in this fashion can nonprofit collaborators begin to recognize that, apart from aligning personal aspirations, the true meaning of life can only be discerned by humbly serving a cause greater than themselves.
Unfortunately, volunteers with valuable professional abilities and specialized skills are often dispatched to do clerical and/or more menial tasks. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) only 53% of volunteers who did “general labor” activities continue to offer their services the following year. Nonprofit organizations should avoid making such unintended errors by establishing an effective system for suitably matching newly enlisted volunteers to appropriate requisites. There is no greater way to increase the morale and self-esteem of their volunteers than for nonprofit leaders to tap into the professional skill-sets of their talent pools in such a strategic fashion.
Recognition. The management of volunteers by religious, nonprofit, and other philanthropic entities requires strategic gestures of recognition. Organizational culture must include formal acknowledgement ceremonies and other expressions of genuine gratefulness through which the service and commitment of volunteerism is valued.
The Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, outline three primary ways that humanity can find meaning: (a) by creating a work or deed, (b) by experiencing something or someone, or (c) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. Since research has documented the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of service, a volunteer management system that includes acts of gratitude embodies the fullness of Frankl’s principles. Put simply, society demonstrates its highest human ideals by expressing appreciation to those who discern and are willing to address human need.
Accordingly, apart from providing opportunities for their effective refinement, philanthropic organizations should also consider expressing appreciation to its human resources by prominently listing the names, hours of contribution, financial value, and service categories of its volunteers in their annual reports. By acknowledging volunteers as well as major financial contributors in this fashion leaders demonstrate a culture that values service. Unfortunately, very few philanthropic agencies realize the persuasive morale-building impact of such certified endorsements.
Retention. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the volunteer rate in America declined by 1.1% in 2013, the lowest (25.4%) it has been since the supplement was first administered in 2002. Unfortunately, the same report indicates that nonprofits can expect to lose one out of three volunteers each year. Five (5) main reasons proffered for the loss of this human talent are: (a) not matching volunteer skill with assignment, (b) not recognizing volunteer contributions, (c) not measuring the value of volunteers, (d) failing to train/invest in volunteers, and (e) failing to provide strong leadership.
By contrast, the attrition rate of volunteers dropped to 25% when assigned to perform professional or management level activities. The data clearly indicates that when talent pools are channeled correctly by reason of effective volunteer management systems, nonprofits can actually expand rather than allow their most valuable human strategic asset to further erode due to their functional commoditization.
The interrelated sacramental acts of Baptism and Chrismation accurately correspond to the twofold movement of volunteerism whose engagement should never be undervalued, commoditized, and/or “utilitized.” In his book, Living Your Strength (2004), Albert Winseman differentiates involvement as utility from ardent engagement. Whereas function describes what individuals do (degree of involvement) in and for their religious community, engagement (emotional connection) entails four interrelated indicators: (a) life satisfaction, (b) inviting, (c) serving others, and (d) giving.
Winseman’s four characteristics of engagement accurately illustrate the qualities of high-retention volunteers who are willing to replicate their passion in others. Extremely satisfied with their emotional affiliation such volunteers are willing to personally invite others to similarly engage, inviting family members, friends and/or co-workers to help advance a nonprofit’s “worthy cause.”
Accordingly, volunteers who are emotionally “engaged” and not merely “involved” with a nonprofit, religious, or other philanthropic entity are more apt to reach out in what Winseman identifies as “service to others.” As a result of increasing their level of engagement through life satisfaction, inviting, and service, nonprofit leaders are able to help their supporters develop along a continuum (member, volunteer, major donor, advocate) whose constituents are increasingly willing to dedicate time, talent and financially support in the faithful advance of an organization’s philanthropic vision.
Replication. The most effective recruiter is always the most passionate and caring volunteer that no slick recruiting technique or brochure can replace. Leaders who understand the replicating value that such advocates provide make certain that volunteers are valued, trained, and developed.
Nonprofit entities have no guarantee that the capacity of their volunteer/donor pools will continue to thrive as in previous decades. Apart from being intentional and strategic, philanthropic organizations that want to increase the level and effectiveness of volunteer engagement must strive to help them reach their potential by aligning their personal aspirations with the organization’s mission and core values. Only in this fashion can the long and dignified history of charitable work to and from families and communities continue to be a fundamental institution of American life.
In their book, Forces for Good: Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits (2012), Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant outline six habits of successful social-service organizations. The book’s recommendations are the result of the duo’s multi-year research project that indicates that high-impact nonprofits: (a) advocate and serve, (b) make markets work, (c) inspire evangelists, (d) nurture nonprofit networks, (e) master the art of adaptation, and (f) share leadership.
According to Crutchfield and Grant, the raison d’être of high-impact nonprofits “is to catalyze social change by inspiring action to others.” The authors insist, however, that only by shifting from an organizational to a relational mindset can inspiration, nurture, and shared leadership generate authentic activity. Predictably, two of the six practices of successful nonprofit organizations focus on the development of “evangelists,” volunteers with influence in their local communities and society at large. Support from such “connected” volunteers is what ultimately provides nonprofits their greatest impact.
For centuries, the “Bayanihan” tradition has been transferred from one Filipino generation to another. Largely due to the change from bamboo to concrete homes, however, the “bayani” community spirit has more recently begun to erode, affecting people’s attitudes and disposition and making it more difficult to create and sustain their philanthropic efforts. Unfortunately, another ideal has displaced the ancient “bayani” mindset, namely the “crab mentality.” Similar to a basket of crabs trying to escape by stepping on the back of another, modern Filipino communities have begun to ignore their nation’s early spirit of selfless collaboration. Neighbors now default to stepping on each other’s back rather than “lifting” and “carrying” each other’s burden.
While it may not be possible for neighborhood porters to literally lift family dwellings on their shoulders anymore, America’s volunteers provide the societal means through which the most valuable philanthropic values of “Bayanihan” may continue. Leaders have a responsibility to introduce volunteer management systems that support community networks, facilitate communication, share knowledge, identify opportunities for action, and channel resources towards strategic work. In the words of the contemporary songwriter with which this commentary began, when properly managed and advanced in such a fashion, religious, civic, and nonprofit volunteers – “sisters and brothers” – have the opportunity to “help carry” their neighbor’s liabilities on their shoulders, and, in effect, lovingly lift humanity’s status, hopes and dreams.
“One love, One blood, One life” – I can think of no greater attitude for dynamically expressing our “oneness” than to selflessly volunteer in such a fashion where and whenever we can!