ORONO, Maine — Research shows that in the months since the recession hit the nation, more and more people have decided to make volunteering a part of their lives.
And it’s a perfect time for organizations to examine how they recruit volunteers, how they use volunteers, how they treat volunteers, and how they can keep volunteers in the fold.
That was the message attendees at the Blaine House Conference on Volunteerism heard Tuesday morning in a keynote address from Martin J. Cowling, who is the CEO of Australian consulting company People First-Total Solutions. Cowling travels the world speaking about strategic planning, volunteer management, coaching and leadership.
This year’s conference drew a statewide audience of 310, the most in the 22-year history of the event. Rochelle Runge, a member of the conference planning committee and a public relations representative for the Maine Commission on Community Service, the host of the conference, thinks the economy plays into the interest in volunteerism.
“Possibly in the down economy people are seeing the value of volunteerism,” said Runge, speaking before Cowling’s talk in the Donald P. Corbett Business Building on the UMaine campus. “Of course, it’s always been there, but they’re really leveraging that resource.”
Cowling said the number of volunteers in the U.S. has skyrocketed this year, including a 1,100 percent increase in some areas of the country. Cowling has heard from some of these new volunteers that they’re trying to stay active in some way while they’re looking for a job after a layoff.
“They’re all saying, ‘I want to volunteer because I want experience,’” he said. “’I want skills. I want to keep my resume active.’ And people have actually heard the message we have been saying about volunteering, that it is something that will allow you to build your resume. People are buying that message.”
Although organizations are relying on volunteers now more than ever, especially in a recession, Cowling said those same organizations are cutting paid volunteer coordinator positions or relying on external sources for consultation work rather than skilled volunteers already in the organization.
There are a number of keys to recruiting and keeping good volunteers, he told the conference attendees.
Volunteer-driven groups must understand that the face of volunteerism is changing, Cowling said. He suggested organizations use social networking Internet sites such as Facebook and Twitter to attract young people, and to allow volunteers to decide how they want to help in an organization so the volunteer and the organization both have the best possible experience.
Organizations also need to come up with a specific way to measure the performance of their volunteers, Cowling said, which can translate to results at the fundraising level. If an organization can offer specifics as to how its volunteers help a program, the organization’s board of trustees or donors can see the exact results of funding a program.
Cowling said organizations also need to invest in volunteer management. Governing boards need to understand the importance of hiring skilled volunteer managers, training everyone in an organization in managing volunteers and setting aside a budget for volunteers, he added.
And volunteers need to be treated fairly, Cowling suggested, with the understanding that volunteers are giving away their own time.
“It curls my hair at the number of times I hear of ways volunteers had been treated badly,” Cowling said. “When our volunteers come into our organizations, they are our customers. They are there to be treated well.”
Despite the changes to volunteering in rough economic times, Cowling said, volunteers still bring compassion, action and change to their work.
“Some of us are moved to action, and we have people who change people’s lives every single day …,” he said. “People bring change into people’s lives.”