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.

3 Steps to Being a Better Person

Hint: do good because “someone really should,” (…and you’re someone).

While former House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D, SC) may be better known for the similarities between his political background and the backstory of House of Cards’ Frank Underwood (a show Rep. Clyburn hasn’t seen due at least in part to his unfamiliarity with the workings of Netflix: “I understand you can watch back-to-back episodes,” says the 74-year-old Congressman, quite correctly), I remember him for something entirely different.

Many years ago, the Clyburn campaign ran a tv ad (at least, I think they did; I can’t find it now) in which he told the story of why he decided to go into politics.  He talked about driving to town on the dirt roads of rural South Carolina in his granddad’s pickup truck.  The two came upon a fallen tree limb that lay across the road.

“That looks dangerous, Granddad,” says young Jim to his grandfather, “someone really should move it.”

At this point, Clyburn’s grandfather pulls the truck over to the side of the road and says, “Well, Jimmy…you’re ‘somebody.’”  And thus begins for James Enos Clyburn a lifetime of public service, of working to clear the proverbial (and literal) path of fallen tree limbs.

Most of us are not (and will never be) moved to a life of public service by one critical incident.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a few lessons from the Jim Clyburn’s of the world about how to do a little more good while we’re here.

Step 1. Quit Cold Turkey: stop asking if it’s worth your time.  

Because when it comes to anything purely altruistic, the answer will almost always be “no.”  Overly packed schedules and Google’s refusal to drop Glass in favor of something really useful, like adding more hours to the day, mean we’re constantly struggling to decide what’s worth our time and what’s not.  Most things on the list have some direct connection to our life obligations: work, family, health, netflix.  This leaves very little room for anything that doesn’t directly address one of those categories.  So, start by asking a different question to begin with.

Step 2. Gut Check Yourself: is it something that should be done?

We have very strong internal barometers for things we think other people should or shouldn’t do: Don’t date that guy; he’s a close-talker.  This app makes me tap two times too many; someone should fix that.  The light at this intersection doesn’t make any sense; why don’t they fix it?  

We live in a world of armchair psychology, Monday morning quarterbacking, and backseat driving.  But we rarely consider that we ourselves are the “someone” or the “they” in the equation.  Philosophers (like Kant) and theologians have decried this logical fallacy for centuries.  In his final speech, Dr Martin Luther King Jr recounts the biblical Parable of the Good Samaritan and leaves us with the provocation:  “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help, what will happen to [him]?’ That’s the question.”   Indeed, if “someone” should move the tree limb out of the road, consider the possibility that you might just be that “someone.”

Step 3.  Test the Tipping Point: would you be inspired to hear the story?

Busy schedules and competing priorities often banish truly worthy endeavors to the part of our mind that stores the “I just can’t”s and the “not right now”s.  But every once in a while, we are forced to stop and acknowledge the awe inspired by those who choose the “I just can’t not” option.

Take these Guerilla Public Servants for example.  It’s hard to look at these time-intensive acts of service and not go, “…Damn.”  Maybe it’s with a pang of guilty recognition that these are things you’d never even think to do, much less take the time, energy and (often) artistic inclination to enact.  Maybe not.

Either way, these actions make for cool stories.  And, while we can debate the merits of an act of goodness done for the sake of the story it leaves behind, we’ve already agreed that time is at a premium here.

So let’s throw out the “humble bragging is bad” argument for now and instead focus on the aggregate amount of Good we can create when we spot something that “someone” really “should” do, and remember old Granddad Clyburn’s observation: Well, Jim, you’re someone.

How Disrupting Social Good is Working for Nonprofits


For better or worse, Silicon Valley has the market on “disruption” cornered (see HBO’s shudder-inducingly accurate portrayal and cringe with self-recognition, if you’re in the biz).  While this sort of jargon has NPR commentators like Kevin Roose and linguists like Jeff Nunberg questioning the precise validity of the term, it has TED Talkers throwing trend-caution to the wind and diving in to be one of the disrupted crowd (the word appears in approximately 8593207891 talk titles).

In the case of Doing Good, while “disruption” may be on the downward-slope of the Rad Terms Bell Curve, this tech-centric approach to upending the status quo may be just what the Making the World a Better Place doctor ordered for nonprofits.

First, a growing body of academic research pivots off of The Innovator’s Dilemma (a book written in 1997 by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, establishing him as the O.G. of disruption theory), pointing to the ways in which stuffy old endeavors like philanthropy can receive a youthful, cold-pressed energy shot by succumbing to the whims of this impact-investing, social enterprise-founding tech generation. (Stanford Social Innovation Review says so; not just me.)  With one cleverly marketed campaign, what was old (fundraising) can be new again (more effective, less tedious fundraising).

Second, we like our efforts to be bite-sized and convenient, but also impactful.  If you want to engage us, you should know what motivates us.  We are a generation of need-to-knowers: which corner of the coop did this roast chicken prefer to use as her restroom, where, exactly, was the wool from this sriracha slouch beanie sheared, and juuuust where is every cent of that $0.49 donation solicited by that Whole Foods bagger going, anyway??  Amiright?

With organizations like Kiva and DonorsChoose.org continuing to outpace many of their more traditional donation-based peers, it seems clear that we are hungry for the ability to make transparent and collaborative decisions about our do-gooding.  Thankfully, as SSIR points out, advances in technology are allowing us to do just that.

When it comes to donating, nonprofits and other causes can now: reach people where they are (on the glowing rectangle in their pocket, obvi), give them easy-access to all the information they require (is my hard-earned money going to an actual needy child or to big, bad “overhead”?), and make sure they don’t lose donations by violating Marissa Mayer’s 2-Tap Rule.   These elements are critical to building a new pipeline of support for your organization and for keeping it relevant.  And, the new model is certainly a disruption of the old standby:

  1. Plan bake sale.
  2. Post lots of flyers for said bake sale.
  3. Make $12.47 (and gain 12.47lbs) at said bake sale.

Finally: the point?  It’s easy to hate on trendy things like “slacktivism” and “disruption.”  But it’s better to take a second to figure out which of those trends might just be a goldmine to your organization.  (Hint: it’s probably not slacktivism.)

Can For-Profits and Nonprofits Both Serve Social Causes?


Despite how nice it  sounds in theory, the idea of “Caring Capitalism” drips with a tad too much innate irony to capture the hearts and minds of columnists, bloggers and catchphrase trendsetters.  Fair.  BUT: slap a term on it that assuages the tree-hugginess of “caring” and the 1%-ishness of “capitalism” juuust a tad (say, a term like, oh, I dunno, “social enterprise” or “sharing economy”), and all of a sudden you have a roadmap of the new normal.

The profile of our three-sector economy is changing.

Social enterprise and genuine efforts at corporate social responsibility (on both the supply and demand sides) are blurring the hardline between nonprofit causes and for-profit companies.  The sharing economy seems to be here to stay, whether the jobs it creates are good or not.  Even the red-tape shackles of government bureaucracy are loosening, thanks to the rise of all things open data.

Young professionals are working (and investing) differently.

Proof of merging sectors can be found, along with proof of most things, by following the money.  Investment in social enterprises and socially conscious companies is way up.  2014 saw $6.6 trillion in socially conscious investments, compared to $3.7 trillion in 2012 and just $.6 trillion in 1995 (to be fair: we millennials were all busy investing in POGS and Tickle-Me-Elmos in 1995).

Young adults in the first stages of their professional careers may have good reason to be the most pissed about the economic meltdown of 2008.  We’re now the Crash Generation, suffering from stunted transition to adulthood, and an extra scary investing environment.  As a result, we try to fight the greed they associate with all things “Wall Street” by investing in, working for, and building startup versions of companies that benefit causes we believe in.

In short, millennials are shifting the tectonic plates of our economy.

Cross-sector competence is King.

Interesting that the same time we have the Dan Pallotta perspective on the fundamental flaws of the nonprofit sector gaining traction, we also have an increase in young professionals applying to graduate programs in social entrepreneurship.  Students are pursuing MBAs and MPA/MPPs, but the content of both degrees is moving closer and closer together.

“What is new is the content of the courses, many of which have gone from being about exploiting loopholes to incorporating regulation into your strategy, or from doing business in domestic locations to the regulatory challenges involved in doing business overseas.”  -Francesca DiMeglio, Bloomberg Business

This is our key issue: we’re moving more and more toward a model of integration and incorporation: incorporating public policy into business strategy, social good into financial investments, causes into marketing.  All of this cross-pollinating means being fluent in each language is essential.  Moreover, the ability to navigate across and through multiple sectors is becoming more and more critical to industry leadership of any kind.  The most successful ventures these days serve social and business purposes, which means businesses will be moving more and more in the direction of social responsibility and, if nonprofits hope to remain (or become more) relevant, they need to move too.