Why you should empower volunteers


In the 1990‘s, 25% of Danes did volunteer work. Today, that figure has increased to one in three. But as volunteers are increasingly used in both private and public sectors, we need to ask a question: what motivates volunteers – why would anyone work for free?

Most recently, Stagis helped Varde municipality create a vision for the future. Citizen involvement was instrumental in creating the vision. And because we told the citizens of Varde this, they responded with commitment and involvement, showing up in force, taking part.

I began my career as a volunteer. I first volunteered at Roskilde Festival working with international press, but was later hired as a press manager. And it’s my yearly pleasure to work with some of the 32,000 wonderful volunteers who help make Northern Europe’s largest festival.
I’ve also gotten a glimpse of what goes into a political campaign, as a field organizer on the 2012 Obama campaign in Ohio – but before you get you hopes up, I have to disappoint you+, US campaigns are not quite like in House of Cards.

The overall strategy came from Chicago, and I was charged with 50 volunteers. Making sure that they were happy and engaged, despite working for free.

Now, the common denominator for both the Roskilde Festival and Obama’s campaign was that the volunteers didn’t just work for free, they actually enjoyed it. The key: empowering volunteers and entrusting them with responsibility.

Since volunteers don’t get paid, you have to create value for them, or they become uninterested and leave – making a person feel needed is perhaps the greatest value of all.

Libraries and festivals
To cut costs, 68% of Danish libraries use volunteers. This har led to the paid librarians focusing on harder tasks that required skill and expertise, problematically volunteers are assigned menial tasks: stocking and checking in books – the boring parts of library work. Work they quickly got tired of.

And because the volunteer librarians don’t feel needed, they don’t stay for long and have to be replaced. This requires the training of new recruits and negates any return on investment.

So, although it has been estimated that there can be a return of more than four US dollars for every one US dollar invested in developing a volunteer training and management infrastructure, you have to retain volunteers for longer periods to reap the rewards. You do this by empowering them.

A poor investment leads to a poor return – and vice versa.

Roskilde Festival invests heavily in engaging their volunteers. They get initial training, there’s a special lounge to hang out at, they get free meals, flushing toilets and hot showers – a much appreciated luxury during the seven day festival.

There are different types of volunteers at Roskilde. Most of the volunteers are organized through various associations, sports clubs and restauarants and work 32 hours to gain a free festival ticket. The festival itself employs almost 1.000 volunteers who work year-round.

If you have ever been to Roskilde Festival, the first group are the volunteers you see walking around in orange vests or sell the food you buy. The latter group perform tasks that would normally would be held by paid employees: they plan how the festival site looks; book music, and as in my case work with communications. The volunteers I have worked with as press manager have been highly skilled and qualified; they have background ranging  from professional journalists, consultants from major press agencies to heads of communication in the private sector.

To put it mildy: They are given a lot of responsibility.

For example: The first time I ran a PR-strategy at Roskilde as a 100-hour volunteer, I managed eight 100-hour volunteers and twenty-five 32-hour volunteers.

The crazy part: As a journalist, I knew about communications and the media world, but I had never run a PR strategy before. But, Roskilde instilled responsibility in me as a volunteer, and that motivated me to excel.

Volunteers return yearly as a consequence of Roskilde’s efforts to empower them. And as they return, they are gradually given more responsibility and value.

How to empower volunteers
During Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign, 2.2 million Americans volunteered for a common goal: to help reelect Obama as president.

I volunteered as well. Coordinating my volunteers from all over Tuscarawas County, Ohio, one of the important swing states. While doing so, I got hands on experience with how campaigns in the US work: they use a tested recipe for engaging volunteers. The recipe has different stages. The process steadily increases their social capital and training to correspond with the responsibility given.

By steadily increasing the perceived value of the work and the amount of responsibility associated with the work, campaign managers can empower volunteers, enable them to do a job, and actually make them feel happy about doing it for free. Of course there is also the big common goal: to influence who is in the end elected president.

Volunteer work in the private sector
But volunteerism is not just for festivals, NGOs and presidents. More than 90 per cent of Fortune 500 companies report having a formal employee volunteering program as part of their CSR-strategy. For example: In 2014, Microsoft donated $7.7 million as a result of the 456,000 volunteer hours logged through the company’s employee volunteer program.

In 2011, Hewlett Packard’s Danish division wanted to rediscover and focus on their strengths to increase engagement, motivation and pride within the organization, and asked Stagis to consult on how to do so.

During the financial crises, HP had tried to steer through troubled waters. The former CEO Mark Hurd introduced reforms and cut costs in order to help HP stay afloat. But with a public reluctant to invest in IT, HP’s PC division subject to media commentary and an overall decline in tech business, questions within the company began to emerge: “who are we?” and “who do we want to become?”.

From June to November in 2011, Stagis mapped out HP’s corporate identity. This resulted not only in creating a more physical, visual or tactile expression of identity within their headquarters in Allerød, using text on walls containing different themes that correlated with their corporate identity. It also resulted in a volunteer-program called HelP.

HelP would use HP products and competencies to empower small businesses to grow, flourish and later create partnerships with HP itself. In turn, HP employees felt pride in helping those who needed it and would rediscover the principles that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard founded the company on.

Volunteerism does not have to be philanthropic on the part of a business, but that doesn’t overrule the good feeling empowerment can create with volunteers. The thing to remember is to match workload with investment: to empower volunteers by giving them new skills and responsibility, but also making sure that they feel needed or get special treatment, like influencing a music festival or presidential campaign.

Flere og flere danskere bliver frivillige. Men hvad motiverer frivillige til at arbejde gratis? Jeg har arbejdet med frivillige på både Roskilde Festival og under Obamas præsidentkampagne i 2012. Jeg lagde mærke til, at de frivillige og organisationerne fik mest ud af samarbejdet, når de frivillige blev bemyndiget.

De fleste mennesker vil gerne føle, at de er nødvendige. En af måderne er at give dem et ansvar, der får dem til at føle, at de er uundværlige – for ofte er de.

Danske biblioteker har siden 2011 prøvet at bruge frivillige til at mindske udgifter. Desværre har bibliotekerne ikke givet de frivillige det ansvar, der skal til for, at de frivillige føler, at der er behov for dem. Derfor fastholder bibliotekerne aldrig den enkelte frivillige længe.

I stærk modsætning til bibliotekerne giver Roskilde Festival ansvar til deres frivillige og sørger for, at de føler sig vigtige. Eksempelvis ved at give dem backstage adgang. Deres tilgang gør, at festivalens frivillige vender tilbage år efter år. Det man med et godt engelsk ord kalder empowerment. Der findes ikke en god oversættelse af “empowerment”. Det tætteste er bemyndigelse, der betyder at give “formel tilladelse el. fuldmagt til at udføre visse handlinger; synonym beføjelse” (sproget.dk).

Bemyndigelse er altså en måde at fastholde frivilliges interesse for arbejdet og samtidig skabe et stærkt tilhørsforhold mellem organisation og frivillige.

Frivillighed kan i det private bruges til at øge arbejdsmoralen og samtidigt gøre noget godt for samfundet, og derved forbedre en virksomheds CSR-profil. Men det kræver stadig, at virksomheder sørger for, at de frivillige bliver bemyndiget.

Stagis har tidligere arbejdet med frivillighed. For eksempel i forbindelse med visionsprocessen for Varde Kommune, hvor vi inddrog borgerne i den vestjyske kommune, som blev en stor del af udformningen af visionen. Stagis arbejder ud fra en tanke om, at strategien altid skal spejle de indre styrker.