Flip the narrative around volunteerism

Language is important

I stumbled upon an insightful blog post recently that delved into the concept of "missing words." (https://rewritingsocialcare.blog/2022/01/02/missing-words/)

One phrase in particular struck a chord with me: "We talk a lot about needs. But it’s amazing how little we talk about rights. We need to flip the narrative, from ‘need for’ to ‘right to.’”

As leaders of volunteers, for example, we often say “we need to properly engage volunteers”. What if, instead, we framed it as “volunteers have a right to be properly engaged”? This subtle shift in perspective not only gives the issue greater urgency but elevates its overall importance.

It prompts us to question how we currently undertake volunteer engagement, and ensures we're actively working towards creating environments where volunteers feel valued, respected, and integral to the organization's mission.

In the social impact world, the power of language can’t be overstated. The words we choose shape perceptions, influence actions and define the very essence of our volunteer programs.

You’ve probably heard, or even said, the phrase, "we need more volunteers". While that may be true, it lacks the deeper truth of stating that “people have a right to volunteer”. By changing the phrase, it gives us a nudge to look at any barriers to volunteering that our programs might have. If we can tackle those barriers, we make it easier for new people to volunteer, which will bring in more volunteers. It transforms a complaint into a plan of action.

Think, too, about the phrase, "volunteer recruitment." As it stands, the words imply a transactional process focused on our needs. "We have a gap; who can we bring in to fill it?" What if, instead, we speak of "welcoming volunteers"? This shift focuses the attention to a more individualized, inclusive and warmer way of inviting volunteers to help. Rather like welcoming people into your home. It provides quite a different mental picture, doesn't it?

Note, these phrases aren’t meant to be just outward-facing. This isn’t about optics. It’s important we use them in our internal discussions, and even in how we think.

When we flip the narrative and use these and similar phrases as part of our regular language, we change how we view our roles. We will start to think more about barriers to volunteering, for example, than about our need for volunteers. And that will help the entire sector.

Language, used in this way, becomes a catalyst for cultural transformation within organizations and within the greater community. When we move from talking about needs to emphasizing rights, we automatically start building a culture of inclusivity and equity. Leading volunteers then becomes, not just a task to be fulfilled, but a part of a shared commitment to upholding the rights of individuals to contribute meaningfully to their communities.

We have to learn be mindful of the phrases we use, recognizing the profound impact they have on shaping organizational culture and volunteer experiences. Through an effective use of language, we contribute to building a stronger and more robust volunteer community. Challenge yourself to examine the words you routinely use - even to yourself - and consider how they shape your view of volunteering and volunteers.

Leaders of volunteers need to flip the narrative. As leaders, we are entrusted with the responsibility of helping set the tone for our organizations. If we pay attention to our language, it sends a clear message about the organization's values. It communicates that volunteers are not commodities used to fill a void but integral components of a mutually beneficial partnership.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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