Volunteerism: Hidden Facets

When you have opted to participate in various SPE and industry projects, chances are that you have accepted and performed the tasks with great enthusiasm. How can you use this passion to motivate others? Mary Merrill, an international consultant in volunteer management and administration, offered valuable insights into the changing facets of volunteerism at the SPE 2005 Leadership Conference, which was held in conjunction with the 2005 Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition in Dallas.

In fact, it is Generation “Y” (people born between 1977 and 1985) that is prompting change within the Society, Merrill said. In her keynote speech, “Sustaining Volunteerism in a Global Society,” she explained the current state of volunteerism and sketched a transformation that promises to have a significant impact on association and other volunteer strategies.

According to Merrill, there has been a global shift in demographic patterns; the focus of volunteers from each of three generations now varies by country. Other issues of note include a proliferation of volunteer opportunities, the perceived value of support efforts, and increased pressure resulting from a 24/7 mentality.

Different Connotations

Merrill presented some insights on the various forms of volunteerism in world cultures—who does the work and the value assigned to the work. A highly respected activity in Hong Kong, volunteerism exists in both formal and informal styles. In Korea and Japan, the state of volunteerism is highly formalized and regulated; managers receive training, and women perform most of the work. In the Soviet states, volunteerism was mandatory; so now, in the former Soviet Union, people now in their 30s see it as a negative, as unvalued work. Here the reasoning is that if no pay is involved, then the work is not of value.

In South Africa, the national agenda is shaped around volunteerism. In Brazil, volunteer work is performed by the wealthy class. In the Middle East, volunteerism is associated with religion and is viewed as a worthy public service with moral gain and possessing political attributes.

There is no distinction made between paid and unpaid volunteers. Many times (particularly in Canada), volunteer duty is viewed as an entry requirement to gain skills. Volunteerism is sometimes seen as a social service delivery system (for example, disaster relief in response to a tsunami or a hurricane). It can also be seen as adversarial (as in advocacy work).

Changing Faces

Demographic and generational changes are being reflected in volunteerism to which motivational and work-style strategies must be directed. Three generations of volunteers exist today: “Baby Boomers” (1944–64), “Generation X” (1965–77), and “Generation Y” (1977–85). They possess very different work styles and each is dramatically different from the “Veteran” (1922–43) worker style.

Merrill took the opportunity to expose conference attendees to these key differences in work styles and perceptions through an interactive exercise. Baby Boomers operate in a collective decision-making style, often involving meetings; value teamwork, personal growth, and change; and require an organization to be highly participative, encourage leadership, and recognize contributions. Baby Boomers perceive volunteering as being about making a difference both personally and professionally.

 Generation X perceives volunteering as a simple, personal act of charity. This generation values independence, self-learning, and skill building, and prefers functional/virtual teams. Deemed as extremely technology proficient and operating with a laissez faire decision-making style, people from Generation X require an organization to be flexible, adaptive, and responsive to their needs.

Generation Y sees volunteerism as a positive civic engagement for a mission/cause and places a high value on individuality, uniqueness, and equality. Operating in an egalitarian decision-making style (equal to others with far more experience and knowledge without respect for tradition or longevity), people from Generation Y require an organization to be innovative, tolerant, recognizing all parties as equals, and offering complete explanations.

New Volunteer Landscape

Time is perceived as a disappearing commodity, yet actual time spent in volunteer efforts (according to a 2001 study) is 52 hours per year per individual. The effects of this perceived time pressure translates to worries about individual burnout, pressure to maintain balance, taking family time away, and time spent volunteering competing with the workplace.

In addition to customizing tasks, associations and organizations must now create a psychological “contract” to meet volunteer expectations. Projects are being sculpted to make tasks more meaningful to individuals, and these activities are clearly connected to the organization’s mission. Value is now being recognized over procedure.

Today’s volunteer is being offered flexibility and acknowledgment based on merit. Organizations are being tasked with communicating results and instilling confidence in volunteers so that they can carry out their roles.


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