Why Volunteering is Too Hard


Lots of people want to “do good.”  Some people put effort into it, even.  Few people, though, would go so far as to claim that they do all the good they’d like to do, or even all the good they could do.  (Be real, would-be composters: if we have to stare at a collection of differently colored bins with differently shaped openings for longer than 3.2 seconds to figure out which one our “made from recycled biocompostpaper” coffee cup goes into, we’re headed straight to Littertown.)

The Corporation for National & Community Service says that 62.6 million Americans (or 25% of the adult population) volunteered in 2013.  That rate is lower than it’s been in a decade.

And, yet, study after study reveals that adults, specifically young adults, more specifically the ones born between the early ‘80s and the early 2000s (there’s a label for them, but you probably haven’t heard of it) are more and more socially conscious.  We buy responsible brands.  We choose jobs with socially responsible organizations.  But we aren’t volunteering.

It can’t be because we’re apathetic (see above).  So something else must be going on.  Let’s give this thing the ole “it’s not me, it’s you” treatment.

1. The Inertia Problem.  Volunteering has too many barriers to entry.

  • If the opportunity isn’t in your face, you’re not going to find it.  Let’s say you’re a socially conscious individual who cares about the environment and food security.  Maybe you read up on the latest policy news in these areas, and you’re actively looking to volunteer.  You’re still only going to spend an average of 15 seconds per website in a 20-minute session looking for volunteer opportunities.  These sessions usually end with a pat on your own back for trying, and not much else.
  • Red tape kills the mood.  Let’s say you do find an organization you care about looking for volunteers.  Then, there’s the sign-up, the scheduling, the training and (uh-oh) the background check.  Even awesome sites like VolunteerMatch require users to sign up for an account, connect with organizations individually and go through the usual orientation rigmarole.  Each of these added steps decreases the likelihood of following through with a volunteer opportunity.

2. The People Problem.  Volunteer opportunities are managed by people–which can be a problem.

      • Volunteering gives you a boss, co-workers, and a system…but no skrilla.  This means that every volunteer opportunity is subject to the complications of potentially ill-equipped or incompetent leaders, stress or tension with fellow volunteers, and kafkaesque organizational policies…but not to the layer of incentive that keeps people coming back to paying jobs.


  • NO barriers to exit.  We already talked about volunteering’s barriers to entry.  Unfortunately, no equivalent exists to getting out of the game.  If you get frustrated by the people or the system, or if a new Netflix season drops on a day you were supposed to volunteer, it’s super easy to just not show up.  Then you’ve disrupted your own volunteering inertia, and we’ll have to count on Australia’s oldest man to knit those penguin sweaters.


3. The Time Problem.  Volunteer engagements–at least the meaningful ones–take too long or last too long.

    • We get distracted by shiny things.  For most folks, the volunteer bug is more like one of those 48hr deals than like a chronic condition.  If we aren’t engaged in the moment we’ve chosen to sign up, our attention will likely have been diverted to something new by the time we’re asked to play.
    • We like insta-bonding.  The single most influential factor in sustained volunteer engagement is a deep, meaningful connection to the cause and to the people.  If we have to invest too much time before we get that warm fuzzy, we’ll bow out.

HOW DO WE FIX IT?  It’s tough to imagine anything short of a huge paradigm shift actually moving the needle on this problem (buzzwordbuzzwordbuzzword), but we could give it the old college try:

  • Reach people where they are.  In the checkout line at WholeFoods last week, the checker asked me if I wanted to donate my change.  The ask was minimal.  The effort was nonexistent.  In short, the perfect model for getting me to participate.
  • Create independent participation, skills-based roles & collaborative leadership models.  Look at volunteers like consultants rather than worker bees.  Utilize models like Etsy Teams or People Power Unlimited’s Chapter Leaders Playground for tips.

Give us instant gratification.  Let me help in quick increments while I’m sitting at my desk or enjoying brief downtime at home.