Why volunteers are your greatest untapped asset
Advice from an NGO leader on why trust issues are holding you back
“Your most valuable asset isn’t your employees,” I told the executive. “Your most valuable asset is the thousands of people who want to work for you for free, and you don’t let them.”
The most common approach to engaging volunteers in the work of an NGO is to identify a few activities, often very simple and repetitive, and to hand them over to volunteers for implementation. One staff member is chosen to oversee this and they will usually be the only person who has any contact with the volunteers. Volunteers are considered to be easily replaced and expendable because, after all, the tasks they can undertake are simple and do not need much experience and skill. Volunteers do not have much influence on what the organisation does, they do not even have much contact with people other than the volunteer coordinator. They are a free labour force that supports a professional team.
As an organisation that initially operated entirely on a voluntary basis — I myself started working full-time in my own organisation only in the 5th year of its operation — we strongly reversed this model. We all started as volunteers and it was only after some time that we began creating paid positions. We see everyone in the organisation as an activist, the only difference being that some of us can be activists full-time, while others do it on less regular basis.
Even now that we have 22 employees in Poland, you can’t tell the difference between an employee and a volunteer by the type of work they’re doing. Here are some of the tasks that are performed by activists who are not employed:
- Handling court cases
- Meeting with politicians
- Creating films and graphics
- Working on campaign strategy
- Investigations and interventions on factory farms
- Organizing conferences and festivals
- Organizing fundraising events
- Contacting donors
- Training volunteers
- Coordinating social media communication
- Writing press releases
- Speaking to the media
- Communicating with companies in order to obtain animal welfare policies
- Communicating with companies that want to provide us with financial support
- Coordinating campaigns
Both employees and volunteers are involved in every sphere of activity in our organisation.
While we do have a volunteer coordinator, this person’s job is to train the leaders of the different local groups rather than to communicate with all the volunteers in the organisation. All employees work with volunteers in some way and are therefore able to achieve much more in their positions. Directors are no exception. We all use the same tools to coordinate our work — like Slack and Trello — where we discuss ideas and plans as equals.
One example of how we work can be seen in our media team. It is coordinated by an employee with lots of experience in communication and creating media campaigns. She organizes regular training sessions for volunteers from different cities who work as part of the media group. She regularly sends information to the group about important events or plans that will require their action. This is an opportunity to sign up to write press releases, give an interview, or do the follow-up after sending the press release. Thanks to this system we are able to be in the media much more often than one media position would allow.
Although a large part of our activists are relatively young, there are also people with extensive professional experience in the group. For me, it would be irrational to only give them the opportunity to show up at protests and give out leaflets. They are often people with professional ambitions which NGOs can’t satisfy, but are very eager to share their knowledge and experience when planning campaigns or marketing strategies for causes they care about. When we plan campaigns we therefore invite volunteers to the table so it is also much easier for us to use the network of contacts of all people involved in the activities of the organization.
Giving volunteers so much decision-making power in the organization was not easy. When we founded the organization as a group of friends, we were sure that we knew everything best. It was not until later that we decided to allow so many people to act and make decisions. When we were all running the organization as volunteers, sometimes it was simply impossible to control everything. Many people had jobs requiring them to work different hours so it was hard to schedule meetings and discuss everything, so at some point we decided to just trust each other and give everyone a mandate to act without asking the whole board for permission.
It sounds risky, but in fact we have had a very good experience by giving people a lot of freedom. If I do not trust someone, I simply do not want them to be a volunteer — the fact that we do not pay for their work does not matter at all. If, on the other hand, someone is reasonable and committed to help farmed animals, I have no reason to be afraid to give them a piece of the organisation. We only make sure to train them and give them all the necessary information beforehand.
When I talk with other organisations about how volunteering works in Open Cages, I tend to get the same questions, like: “How do you motivate volunteers?” and “How do you make volunteers join your protests?” This is my attempt to answer them. I believe there are no better tools to motivate than being part of a community and a sense of responsibility for the organisation. Volunteers are motivated because they have a real influence on what we do. In retrospect, I also see that people who are immediately involved in responsible activities stay with us much longer. This is the case even if these tasks have been suggested to them and are not a result of their own previous initiative, so I don’t think it can be explained by their general difference in attitude.
Sometimes volunteers do not come to “our” protests or actions, because these are “our” actions, not “theirs”. If an organization thinks about volunteers only when they are needed (e.g. we organize a demonstration), and does not think about them when we plan strategy or new projects, many people do not feel any reason to change their plans for the weekend. Real commitment comes when people start to identify with the organisation , and this will not happen as long as they they are only invited to street actions when the employees of the organisation need them. On the other hand, people who are really involved in the day-to-day work of the NGO, including at the level of brainstorming and evaluating ideas, are sometimes even willing to take a day off from work and go to another city for an event that is really important. I’ve seen a lot of such cases in recent years.
Frequently, volunteers, and often also employees, are not involved in the decision-making process, because this is usually the task of the people who manage the organisation or the campaign. This often propagates the belief that managers will always know what to do better than others, or even how to do it. While it is difficult to discuss the role of experience and knowledge in the quality of decision making, I see a high value in involving people who have less experience in the process of campaign planning or strategy planning.
You need to involve people in making decisions if you want to teach them how to make decisions and think strategically. Even if their ideas are rejected, they still get a good explanation as to why the idea probably won’t work and so it has great educational value for the future. We should always keep in mind that if our movement is to become successful, we need to make sure today that we grow leaders for tomorrow. I sometimes hear comments that some activists don’t think strategically. The question is: do we put enough time into making them learn this skill?
On the other hand, involving people with less experience also gives many things a fresh perspective. Experience has its disadvantages in the form of learned patterns of action. People on the periphery of an organisation usually have more contact with the world outside it and they also bring new perspectives to the table, which makes their input very valuable.
In our case, the high involvement of volunteers in decision-making is also associated with our high expectations towards them. Not everyone can cope with this. I have seen grassroots organisations in which the person who appeared at the first meeting has similar rights to someone who has been coordinating the campaign for 3 years. I think it’s very irresponsible. In Open Cages all volunteers receive initial training and are then involved in our work by the local coordinators. We do our best to make it easy for people to find out how they can help, but if they are not active and responsible we let them go. Those who stay have the opportunity to benefit from mentoring and many internal and external training courses and webinars. We also have internal lists of books worth reading and lectures worth seeing and I know that a lot of people use it. I’ve heard from several people that volunteering or working for Open Cages was an intellectually stimulating experience for them.
As an organization we invest in people and try to give the same tools for self-development to our employees and other activists. We strive to create a culture of development, share recommendations for books, podcasts and articles, and provide everyone who wants to learn new things with unlimited access to courses on online platforms. Investing in volunteers certainly pays off for us — we have people in our organization who have been with us for 6–7 years, practically from the beginning of the existence of Open Cages in Poland.
We also like to hire our volunteers. They are people with whom we work every day, and who run some campaigns completely independently. Even if they were starting from scratch, often after a year or two they are much better than most people we could hire from the outside. For example, when we were recruiting for a fundraising position, despite many applications, three people reached the end of the recruitment process and all of them were volunteers in the fundraising group. Fundraising culture is still developing in Poland, so it is hard to find people who have extensive knowledge and experience in this field. In the end, apart from our three volunteers, we did not consider anyone else after the first stages of the recruitment process.
Investing in people is important even if they do not stay in our organisation. If they decide to work in other NGOs or in the plant products business sector for example — and we have many such examples — I am still very pleased that we have a positive impact on the performance of other organisations and businesses. Some of our volunteers used the experience gained here when changing jobs. They had a chance to work on interesting and big projects and such experience would normally not be available to them in paid jobs, where at their level of seniority they would only be able to follow instructions of others, without having any influence. Thanks to the trust we were able to give them, they could learn much more.
Trust is a powerful tool, and while I have been disappointed by people many times I have also seen so many examples of outstanding accomplishments, wisdom and hard-work of our activists that are results of their ownership and empowerment. This led me to decide to keep on trusting. If you don’t trust people, they sense it. There is no need to do your best if everything you do will be checked and changed by the supervisor. On the other hand, when people know that they are fully responsible for the success of the project they are working on, they put all their heart and brains into it. People are as trustworthy or as untrustworthy as you allow them to be.
Many of the people I talk to about how we do things are delighted on the one hand with the number and commitment of volunteers and employees and on the other hand, when I tell them exactly how it all works, they are convinced that it can’t work. It is worth remembering, however, that giving people a lot of freedom in the way they perform their tasks and choose which projects they engage in is a proven method of management used successfully by companies, especially those specializing in modern technologies or IT. NGOs, whose aim is to change the world, are closer to companies dealing with modern inventions than to hierarchical factories. Sharing decision making with other people in an organization can be frightening, but the benefits are worth it. You just need to really believe in people and not give up.