Last week at the training I presented to the City of Flagstaff, we dove into the issue of engaging citizens as volunteers. Volunteers can be awesome. However, volunteers are people and bringing on new and more and different people to your team can be hard.
Why engage volunteers?
Work is piling up and you do not have enough paid resources to handle it. Someone suggests, why not recruit some volunteers to help? Sounds like a great idea! Volunteers are free, right?
Engaging citizens as volunteers can be a great way to leverage your resources and get more done, but they are not free. With the time and extra resources you will need to direct and support volunteers, I recommend thinking carefully about what other goals you want to accomplish by recruiting volunteers.
In other words, if your only goal is to get tasks accomplished, there may be more efficient and effective ways to do that. Read on to see why I am still a huge advocate for volunteerism.
Do you want to build community?
When citizens are brought inside the walls of government to work alongside staff, it can give them a sense of ownership. Suddenly “the government” is not an amorphous intimidating mass. It is Sally the Librarian who loves Dr. Seuss and Sam the Public Health Specialist who is training a seeing eye dog in his spare time. Not only do the people of government become real people who a citizen volunteer can get to know and work alongside, but the problems of government become community problems.
Most citizens lack a good understanding of public policy and civics and may not understand the challenges and constraints that a city or county faces in trying to tackle problems like affordable housing or litter prevention. I resemble that remark. A citizen who is invited to join the effort and receives training and support from staff about the problem, is likely to become a strong advocate in the community around that problem. They will see the complexity and feel more ownership over both the problem and the solution.
Do you want to diversify your resources?
We all could use more resources and that is one of the most magical things about volunteer engagement. The possibilities are endless!
In one of my first jobs with local government, we were rebranding a program and wanted to design new fliers and materials. No one on our small team had graphic design skills. We recruited a university student in the graphic design program as a volunteer and she did a great job. As an added bonus, this volunteer was deaf. She was able to teach us about accessibility and how to reach out to and be inclusive of the Deaf community.
Do you work with volunteers in local government? Consider joining me as a member of the National Association of Volunteer Programs in Local Government. It is a great network of folks who know how to do this well.