Recently, a librarian in Indiana was being interviewed on National Public Radio about the increase in usage of public libraries, particularly of their resources for job hunters. The reporter asked if the library staff was feeling the strain, and the librarian mentioned that volunteers were really helping out. She noted that "gratitude" for library services was evoking all kinds of donated help, including one out-of-work patron who -- on his own initiative -- had been shoveling snow off the library steps after every storm to show his appreciation for what was available inside.
This story made me think about how people react to being helped. A lot of volunteering is based on the assumption that recipients of assistance acknowledge being "in need." But that may actually be the hardest thing about being helped: lowering one's self-esteem to accept the kindness of others.
In emergencies, people are instantly forced to change their self-image. After losing a home to flood or becoming unemployed due to layoffs, a person may shift suddenly from being a proud donor or dedicated volunteer to a human service agency's "client." It takes a while to adjust how that person sees him/herself.
Even in times without crisis, it's vital to see recipients of service holistically. The patient in dialysis is also a high school teacher; the parent picking up donated food is a skilled but out-of-work carpenter; the homeless teenager is a budding artist. All individuals are multi-dimensional, even if we are focusing on one aspect of their situation. Can recognizing this uncover new volunteers and increase the self-esteem of clients?
If you know that someone is unemployed, invite him or her to apply as a volunteer, even if only temporarily. If you think that someone is reluctant to make use of your organization's services out of pride, consider presenting the transaction as barter or exchange. For example:
"There are a number of families in this same situation. Let's talk about how -- together -- we can help everyone. Maybe one of you can pick up the emergency supplies for those who have no transportation, while someone else can prepare larger recipes that can be frozen into portions for the one who is homebound."
No one should ever feel that this invitation to help with the solution is in any way an expectation in order to get the help. You might not use this approach with everyone. But if you see a client who seems uncomfortable with "accepting charity," taking a "volunteer recruitment approach" might be win-win.