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September 2009

Making Ongoing Volunteering Valued and Visible

By Susan J. Ellis

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During the amazing and celebratory opening session of the National Conference on Volunteering and Service held this June in San Francisco, First Lady Michelle Obama and at least four of the other famous speakers proposed a future scenario:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in time to come, when we meet someone and are making conversation, one of the top five things we choose to talk about will be: “…and where do you serve?” 

They were referring to the integration of volunteering into daily life in a “taken for granted” way, as well as elevating it to a subject of great interest in getting to know one another. How do we start today to foster natural discussion about volunteering and also to shine a light on ongoing service that is already so pervasive, yet invisible to many?

Job Applications

Well, we might start by actually asking people we meet about the things they do to  help others, advocate a cause, or contribute to their community.  Add a question about service to business networking sessions, in icebreakers of any sort, during lunch at the next conference.  Make it a question in speed dating!

Even more intentionally, ask about an applicant’s voluntary community work on any job application and discuss that volunteer work in greater depth during the job interview.  I am talking about any new hire, not just in nonprofits and not just for people who are going to be working with volunteers on the job.  After all, what we do as volunteers often says much more about us – who we are as people – than our paid work experience.  That’s especially true for young people whose volunteering may demonstrate a wide range of advanced skills not necessarily revealed in the usual low-level paying jobs students tend to get.  Similarly, anyone returning to the work force or trying to change careers may be able to leverage community service experience more successfully than a seemingly-unrelated job background.

Check your organization’s job application form.  Does it specifically ask about volunteering?  If not, recommend that it does.

Further, help volunteers who work in your organization to represent their service the most positive way on their resumes. Don’t let anyone bury or de-value volunteering by sticking it at the end of a resume under a heading like “Other Experience” or “Community Work.”  Instead, explain and integrate volunteer experience in with paid work – unapologetically!  Remember that the purpose of a resume is to get a personal interview.  An interesting volunteer background may intrigue a prospective employer into wanting to meet the applicant.


Another idea is to advocate for adding someone’s volunteer profile to any public introduction, at any time.  Consider the impact if a person’s volunteer work were naturally included with other pertinent data in such situations as:

  • The credentials of political candidates running for office
  • Each person on a panel of expert news analysts on any of the dozens of talk shows on broadcast and cable media
  • Every keynote speaker at any and all conferences
  • Presenters at celebrity awards shows
  • Appointees to committees and commissions

Make sure you add volunteer information about your executive director when introducing her or him at your next recognition event!

In 2001, for the International Year of Volunteers, I designed a project for UN Volunteers, the coordinating body.  We printed up nametags for use at any type of conference held during 2001.  It provided an area for the usual “name, organization, location” information, but added a space at the bottom to complete this sentence:  “In addition to my official identity above, I also volunteer by doing….”   At one international gathering where this nametag was used, it was quite remarkable to see what people wrote. And guess what?  They ended up talking more about what they did as volunteers than the same-old/same-old topics.

Propose such a nametag at conferences you may be helping to plan – including those for volunteer program managers.  If all else fails, take any nametag you’re given at an event and insert one or more of your volunteer “identities” on it to start discussion.

Single Days of Service

This month in the United States we have the newly-designated September 11th “National Day of Service and Remembrance.”  As with all such days, there will be media attention on a wide array of group volunteer projects eliciting a burst of a few hours of energy on something tangible and photogenic – painting walls, cleaning up vacant lots, running a community picnic, etc. 

But the problem with all such days of service is that they focus only what is being done that day – which keeps sustained volunteering in the shadows.  Often sustained service is hard to capture in a photograph or a 30-second sound bite, yet it is the ongoing volunteer assignment that ultimately has lasting impact.  How do we raise the visibility of more intensive service in the midst of hoopla about one-time enthusiasm?

I’d love to know what you think, but here are two ideas to get us started:

  • Invite ongoing volunteers to plan something they can do collectively on September 11th, Make a Difference Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, or whatever event is bringing out episodic volunteers.  Try to make the one-day group effort relevant to the year-round work.  For example, volunteer tutors in a literacy program – which requires weekly, dedicated tutor/student sessions over a long period of time – might use the day of service to run a book drive, hold a fundraising read-a-thon, or make a classroom more attractive.  This effort would have intrinsic benefits for the literacy program but, to the point here, can then be publicized along with anything else going on to commemorate the day.  It might recruit new volunteers who learn about the tutors’ work or at least give the tutors some recognition. (And why not do a service project that also includes the students, volunteering alongside their tutors?)
  • Piggyback on stories about special day-of-service activities.  So, if there’s a news item about a new playground being built by volunteers in five hours on one day, praise that worthwhile effort and explain to your local media that children’s play is vital to your ongoing work and that they may want to do a story about the volunteers who run after-school programs for both homework help and recreation.  

Visibility and acknowledgement of volunteers needs to grow incrementally in an organic way.  Each of us can take action to interject discussion of volunteers in unexpected places and in what we learn or share personally. 

The American entertainment industry is stepping up to the plate the week of October 19th with a plan to incorporate volunteering and service into the lives of fictional television and movie characters.  This is a great idea if done well (I raise some cautions in a 2003 Hot Topic about this).  If the campaign succeeds, and if such mentions of volunteering continue over time, we’ll have even more to discuss in conversations with colleagues and friends.

  • What ideas do you have about using September 11th and any other day of service as a platform for shining a light on ongoing volunteering?
  • Have you ever made a conscious effort to include volunteering in the introduction of someone famous or important,  and what happened?
  • How else can we make discussion of volunteering natural and ongoing?

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Have you read Susan's books? She's authored 14!

Cover of BookThe Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook

Just released! Understand the concept of virtual volunteering and integrate online service into all volunteer involvement.


From the Top Down

Outlines the key executive decisions necessary to lay the foundation for effective volunteer involvement: policies, budgeting, staffing, employee-volunteer relationships, legal issues, cost and value of volunteers, and more. Revised in 2010


By the PeopleBy the People: A History of Americans as Volunteers

Newly revised and updated, this book remains the only presentation of the full scope and depth of volunteer activity throughout three centuries of American history.


Volunteer Management Audit
A validating tool for analyzing the effectiveness of an organization's volunteer management practices, with complete Scoresheets and instructions to conduct the process successfully.


Book coverChildren as Volunteers

How to integrate volunteers under the age of 14 into an existing adult volunteer program: multi-age teams, designing work, preparing the agency, liaisoning with schools, and legal issues.


Book coverThe (Help!) I-Don't-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management

Managing a volunteer program part-time? Or just not enough hours in a day? Full task analysis of the job of volunteer program manager, how to build a management team and engage volunteers in leadership of the program.


Book coverLeading the Way to Successful Volunteer Involvement: Practical Tools for Busy Executives

A set of checklists, worksheets, idea stimulators, and other practical guides for senior-level leaders to incorporate volunteer involvement as a key ingredient in the overall strategy of an organization.


More books..