Avengers, Volunteer!

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By Liza J Dyer on
everything volunteering, recruitment, ttvolmgrs and volunteer management 446 views 0 likes 6 comments

It was a day like any other, or so I thought.

Work was going smoothly and I was looking forward to catching up with some friends after work. I had no idea who was going to walk through the door that afternoon, and I was sure in for a surprise!

I was finishing up the final touches on a program report; making sure all the charts and quotes matched up with the relevant impact sections. It was nice to be so close to finishing, and I was thinking I might be able to wrap up a bit early, when he walked in. Did I say “walked in”? It was more like one minute he wasn’t there, and the next he was. This tall, broad-shouldered man looked more like a Norse god than a regular man and he had incredible presence.

“Uh, hi, and welcome to the City Volunteer Center! What can I help you with?” I managed to say.

“I am new to the area and I would like to contribute to the community,” he replied.

“Great! I’m Liza, one of the volunteer coordinators here. Come on in and we can talk about what you’re interested in and what types of volunteer opportunities are available.” I was getting back into my usual groove and thinking less about how intimidating he seemed. The stranger took a seat across the desk from me, perfect posture and all.

“I am Thor, son of...” he trailed off. “My name is Thor.” He seemed to be deep in thought, if only for a moment, like he was trying to remember something.

“It’s so nice to meet you, uh, Thor, is it?” Although it wasn’t a common name, it fit him well.

He nodded, and I asked if he could tell me a little more about himself. “As I said, I am new here and looking to explore Earth -- I mean, the area -- and give back to the community. Life has been challenging at home since my brother discovered he was adopted. I decided to take time to travel and visit friends. They recommended your volunteer center. I am very good with tools and enjoy working with my hands and getting things done. I also enjoy stargazing. It reminds me of home.”

In the end, I asked, "Do you have anything in mind that you'd like to do? Anything that motivates you to volunteer?"

"I will do whatever needs doing," he said with a stoic smile.

A million ideas were running through my head. The local non-profit home building center was always in need of volunteers who could wield a hammer. The planetarium down the street was also looking for a new presenter who could point out the different planetary systems. Which one, I wondered, would be Thor’s cup of tea?

So, who is Thor? Thor is a member of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” also known as The Avengers. This team of so-called heroes debuted in the comics of the early 1960’s and have had various members throughout the years. The team has enjoyed a recent comeback in films featuring Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man, Black Widow, and Hawkeye over the last few years and culminated in a recent movie, aptly titled “The Avengers.”

The Avengers

The great thing about the Avengers, and comics and movie characters in general, is that each person who experiences the characters can identify with something about them. It’s human nature to compare ourselves with others, be they real or fictional. The members of the Avengers have their own quirks; things that make them unique. Each has different pasts, skill sets, abilities, and interests. Is this starting to sound familiar?

As people who work with volunteers, we are always trying to suss out the best placements for incoming volunteers, or a new role for a current volunteer, based on all the above mentioned characteristics. It is our role to understand what inspires and motivates someone to get engaged with their community. There have been times when I struggle with this and, even when I ask someone what inspires or motivates them, they aren’t able to put their finger on it either. I work for a library system and so often I hear the response, “I just love books. I want to be around them.” While this may be true, one doesn’t need to volunteer in a library to be around books. If the volunteer doesn’t know why they want to volunteer, aside from being surrounded by books, do I? On the other hand, is it my job to plant the seeds of motivation and create inspiration where there was little before?

Nick Fury - The Inspirational Volunteer Manager?

In the world of the Avengers, there is an individual by the name of Nick Fury. This gentleman was appointed by a volunteer board to serve as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., whose mission is to handle worldwide threats, often of the superhuman variety. His role in the organization is to facilitate and recruit a group of extraordinary people to save the world. Nick Fury uses his years of military and espionage experience to understand what motivates people. Using these past experiences he blends together a group of very different people to achieve a common goal. At times, he must blur the line between truth and fiction to create a compelling reason for the Avengers to assemble and fight for humanity. It is with this knowledge that I imagine Nick Fury as an inspirational volunteer manager. After all, none of the team members are being paid to save the world. Each one has a vastly different back story, and each is motivated in different ways.

Like Nick Fury, it is often our job to coalesce a group of unique individuals to work together and collaborate on a common mission. Unlike Nick Fury, however, it is my hope that we can maintain honest and open communication with volunteers and not have to conceal the truth to achieve our goals.

My questions to you, oh thoughtful ones:

  • How do you discover what motivates a volunteer?
  • What would you ask a potential volunteer who doesn’t seem to have an idea of why they want to volunteer or what they want to do?
  • How important is it to understand motivation? For example, if you can’t figure out someone’s motivations, what then?
  • Do you secretly inspire volunteers? If so, how?
  • Have you ever had to conceal the truth -- even a little bit -- to accomplish a goal in your organization?
  • Who would be your ideal fictional volunteer team?

As always, feel free to chime in with your responses on Twitter with the #ttvolmgrs hashtag, or in the comments section below. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

This blog brought to you by @USVolunteers who inspired me to think of The Avengers as volunteers by asking, “If #volunteers had superpowers, would they be DC or Marvel? #avengers,” @suevjones who asked me to write this #ttvolmgrs blog (#eyepatchrequired), and @thewally42 who made sure my Avengers references were accurate.

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Top answer

I've been on holiday so just reading this now. Love it! In answer to the questions:

I discover what motivates volunteers through empathy (the nature of our charity lends itself to people of a certain background/interest which I can relate to); through a questionnaire when they first join; through friendly chat at meetings.

We sometimes have new volunteers who don't really know what to do. It's tricky because my role doesn't extend to 121 support as other volunteer managers' might. I talk through their interests and try and make a match with our aims and the logistics of the Branch they are volunteering with.

I think understanding motivation is VERY important. The hardest time I have had has been with volunteers who have come from a non-science, non-engagement background. As science engagement is what we do this is a hard one to place! These days we are starting to get people from different backgrounds with complementary skills e.g. in marketing, graphic design etc, that facilitates the action of the Branches without being the actual science bit. Motivation is frequently about career advancement and skills development. I'm hoping one day we'll be able to offer more training to nurture those motivated in this way.

I do inspire volunteers in their activity sometimes (secretly? Not sure!). The constant task of creating new engagment concepts, formats, topics etc can be hard and sometimes our volunteers need a little nudge to help get the creative juices flowing. A good event to plan is a strong motivator.

Not sure I've ever had to conceal the truth... Not consciously!

My ideal fictional Branch volunteer team is a few great scientists for inspiration; a talented graphic designer and volunteer with marketing skills to create excellent promotional material for the Branch; a brilliant administrator/organiser to keep Branch records, coordinate meetings, keep on top of volunteer roles in the committee; someone keen on engaging minority group(s) with experience to enable it to happen; a superb social networker to work the net (no pun intended); a sharp fundraiser to support Branch activity; and a creative thinker to support innovation in engagement. These need not each be different individuals! *mouth waters at what the team could achieve*

Liza J Dyer

Thank you for your thoughts, Pam!

I'm in the same position as you in regards to not being able to provide one-on-one support as much as I'd like. I try to get as much info as I can to help make a connection between the volunteer and the branch, but it's not a perfect science.

I love your ideal volunteer team! It really does sound like a dream team!

Hi Lisa, enjoyed the blog. There were many questions there I would love to ansa but not enough space here on this site to manage it, I would call but I am sure work wouldn't cover the cot but its a subject I love talking about.
So I will try not to write a book or blog but give some of the questions a go... I know I secretly inspire volunteers because I have been told but how I do it is a mystery to me as sometimes it just comes naturally, people tell me it is because I am passionate about volunteering and talk with this passion when describing what it is I am in a way 'selling/marketing' to volunteers because in a way it is that kind of technique. Apparently my eyes light up and hand become animated with excitement - I tell them about the charity, what it does and who benefits plus any great work or results the volunteer can identify with. I then tell them clearly about the role, what will be done, how, why and what they could get out of it, where it could lead and the contribution they will be making. This is all done in my lively style and enthusiasm. I don't force people but can naturally see they have some empathy with the subject to volunteer for.
NEVER EVER conceal the truth to get to your goal because if you work with someone like me I'll find you out - see all hear all elephants memory!
If you cannot figure out someone's motivations, then stop for a bit an look at yourself. Ask yourself are asking the right questions? would those questions get a motivated response from yourself. If all fails find another job, harsh I know but for me understanding motivation in volunteers is part of the success in managing volunteers.
Asking questions to someone who has no idea what they want to do or why is a very long one, I have a long list which depending on the response goes to another section of questions but I usually ask what interests them in their personal life, hobbies etc and what activities do they like doing? if this fails I run off a list of stuff such as do you enjoy talking, watching tv, walking etc really basic stuff and then I build from there - In my role I broker many people into volunteering roles and get many who have this approach.
One way I find out what motivates a volunteer is I get them to talk and I listen this is so important to do and also ask questions leading to find out more information but this is just 1 technique and does not fit all.
Lastly my ideal fictional team! so many to chose from but they would have the following qualities...to be motivated, believers in a cause, want to help the world and beyond, people with kind hearts and willing to try.

Liza J Dyer

How cool is it that you super secretly inspire? I mean, if it's a mystery to you, I think that's what's called "having a knack" for something. It really does sound like you're in the right field of work!

Great point about asking the right questions! I have several versions of my primary questions that I ask incoming volunteers and sometimes I have to play around with the words to get what I'm looking for to make a good placement.

Your ideal team sounds wonderful! Especially the part about being willing to try. If you don't have that quality, how far will you get in life, right?

Thank you for your thoughts!

great blog Liza! Really like the style and the message. I'm getting going on twitter right now :)

Liza J Dyer

Thank you so much! It was great fun to write too. =)