Ok so you are now wondering what on earth currency has to do with volunteering, but bear with me and you’ll see where I’m going with this. I promise I’m not talking about Brexit, politics or international business, just the currencies that are exclusive to volunteers.
I recently lost a friend Steve, who had volunteered for 30+ years in the same place and had more recently come to me for support to look at other options as he was not being treated well by the management of his long-term placement, and his motivations to volunteer were being called into question. He actually ended up volunteering for me with my annual Operation Santa appeal and spent 6 happy weeks wrapping and sorting donations, and his final role was helping to entertain 60 children and their parents at a Christmas party, making everyone laugh and smile.
This lovely volunteer when asked about why he volunteered said he was paid in smiles, so that was his volunteer currency – a smile. So how did he gather his currency? Steve volunteered on a children’s ward, so loved to approach a child or young person who had recently been admitted and was in pain, feeling miserable or at times in tears. His approach varied from child to child and his first step was often to invite them to meet his teddy friend, who invariably end up in bed with the child. With a sulky teenager he would have a different approach and his tenacity was amazing as he always got them to talk to him, even if they wouldn’t talk to anyone else. Steve was never happy until he’d managed to get a smile, even if it was a weak one it was a start! That was his payment 🙂 He also collected wishes from the children on the ward and did his best to fulfil these. This amazing volunteer gave hours of his own time over 3 decades and made 551 local children’s dreams come true. Everything from riding in a helicopter or a Ferrari, to meeting a celebrity or smashing gnomes! He even arranged a full prom for a young patient who couldn’t get to her school one.
Steve said himself:
“As a volunteer of course you don’t get paid for what you do not in financial terms, but to see that smile how can you put a price on that? Then of course you’ve got the day itself when you meet up and you see them lift off in that helicopter, or set off in that car so you get another smile, and you get a smile from the family and that’s a very fulfilling it’s very rewarding.”
However, this post isn’t simply a eulogy to a much loved volunteer, but a recognition that although volunteers may not receive anything in financial terms, they do get other rewards and I believe that’s what keeps them giving their time and skills to help others. So what other currencies are exclusive to volunteers and pardon the pun, something that money can’t buy?
What keeps a volunteer coming back to a role every week? Perhaps their role is helping out at a day centre, chatting to people with disabilities who may not get much chance to socialise and doing activities with them to promote their independence. A smile when you arrive and people wanting to chat to you makes you feel appreciated and realise that they value you giving your time. That’s a powerful currency feeling appreciated let’s be honest. When did you last feel appreciated? Didn’t it make you feel great?
I always encourage organisations to treat paid staff and volunteers in the same way to avoid volunteers feel less valued. I met a volunteer whom I had signposted to an organisation who was regaling me with their adventures since they started volunteering there and apparently the volunteers were treated better than the paid staff! Customers were much kinder and politer to the volunteers than the paid staff, telling them how wonderful they were and selfless for giving up their time to help the isolated and disabled. This is wonderful, but not very fair on the paid staff who are no doubt doing a sterling job in difficult circumstances! These kind words from customers are a wonderful motivational thing for volunteers wherever they may give their time, even the simplest things such as being thanked makes you feel better and know that you are doing a great thing by volunteering.
This is an area which tends to divide both volunteers and volunteer-involving organisations. Is it right to celebrate and recognise a single volunteer when you have lots of them? How do you choose who to recognise? This dilemma is a common one and maybe the simplest way to decide what’s best is to know your volunteers well. You will have the volunteers who want to operate under the radar and a simple ‘thank you’ is sufficient for them to feel valued and appreciated, whereas you will have other volunteers who love the spotlight and need to be told constantly that they are wonderful. Nominating volunteers for awards is always a conundrum isn’t it? Do you single out a volunteer or nominate a team? If they receive an award will they attend the event? Some will arrive dressed up to the nines and a speech prepared just in case, whereas others are far happier avoiding all the fuss, at home on the sofa in their pj’s! So tailored recognition is important and you should celebrate your volunteers as this makes them feel valued and reassures them that they are doing a great job, another currency of volunteering.
Feeling they’ve made a difference
Volunteering is all about making a difference let’s be honest, so this is yet another currency. You could be the only person someone sees in a week or talks to, particularly with a vulnerable older person. That hour every week is probably life-changing for them and that’s a powerful emotion isn’t it? Perhaps you are a sighted guide for someone who’s lost their sight and your weekly stroll to the shops is the highlight of their week, or befriend a single parent giving them a grown up to talk to, or someone to look after their children whilst they grab a bath and a little time to themselves. That’s the essence of volunteering isn’t it? Giving your time to make a difference to someone?
When did you last feel elated in your everyday life or feel you had achieved something? Volunteers must often experience this feeling. They could be the volunteer who set up a social group for people with dementia and their carers in a local church hall, helping both carers and those they care far have someone to talk to, discuss and share common problems, whilst those they are caring for enjoy some social activities. Or the volunteer leader who has supported and encouraged their young beavers to achieve their first badge. Imagine the elation and pride you would feel when they were presented and the smiles on their faces. Volunteers get a real kick from this particular currency.
Leaving a legacy
When volunteers move on for whatever reason – a new challenge, paid work, moving away from the area or even ill-health, knowing they’ve left a legacy is a powerful currency. The volunteer who’s developed a new service for clients, who’s fundraised £’s for a cause or like my dear friend Steve, granted wishes to 550+ poorly children. This is yet another currency that’s unique to volunteering, where someone investing their time can change lives and leave a lifelong legacy.
So volunteer currency has the feel-good factor, which can’t be said for traditional currencies. It is unique, international and accepted everywhere. It’s doesn’t devalue due to conflicting markets, war or political issues, in fact it’s a growing currency as more people choose to give their time as volunteers and enjoy it for themselves. Maybe we now need to capture this and encourage non-volunteers to buy into our single currency – volunteering 🙂