Clients as Volunteers

Sometimes the goal is not to recruit outside volunteers but to engage recipients of service to help one another.  Such self-help builds confidence and taps into a whole new talent pool of volunteers who personally understand the issues being faced.

Whom Don’t We Ask to Volunteer?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2014
The Importance of Self-Esteem
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

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.

Involving Clients or Consumers in Helping Others
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

When we talk about "involving the community" in working towards our mission, we almost always think about recruiting people who are in a position to "help" those we serve. In other words, we see them as a different group of people than our clients, consumers, audience, or other recipients of services from us. This isn't wrong, but it is limited - and perhaps even paternalistic. Those who need or want our services may, in fact, also possess skills, talents, and time that they would be more than happy to contribute, if we'd only ask.

It begins with the mindset that the identities of "helper" and "recipient" are actually relative, depending on many factors. The patient undergoing chemo may concurrently be an accountant and also a volunteer reading tutor at the elementary school. The person rescued from a ski slope accident may be a truck driver and a volunteer youth sports coach. In other words, the people we perceive as "clients" turn out to be another organization's employees and yet another organization's volunteers.

How can we put this mindset to work? Here are a few ideas:

  • Make sure that the list of vacant volunteer positions is posted wherever clients gather - a waiting room, cafeteria, etc. You never know when something might grab someone's interest - or the attention of someone accompanying the client/consumer to your facility.
  • In addition to the regular volunteer assignments that are available, develop a specific list of things that other clients need and post those, such as: transportation to and from appointments or events; equipment or items a long-time client no longer needs but a new one might; someone willing to talk to the spouse or child of a new client about similar personal experiences; etc.
  • Ask questions, either with short survey forms or brief interviews conducted by volunteers. There are two types of surveys that could be useful. The first is a special needs assessment: We'd like to get your insight into the experience of being a client with us. What is missing or what can we do more of or in a better way? By answering us honestly, you'll end up helping everyone else who needs to use our services.
    The second is a more direct invitation to get involved: If you've enjoyed your visit today (or felt you were helped by our services, or whatever), are you aware of some of the things you could do to "pass it on" to others needing the same service?
  • Specifically reach out to family members and friends who may, in fact, be delighted to do something useful while waiting around for their loved one to finish treatment or rehearsals or whatever. Try putting up a table in the parking lot with a big sign saying something like: "Driving here every week? Want to make that gasoline pay off double?" Have volunteer application forms ready.

Of course this only works if your clientele is not in crisis at the moment. But it does wonders for self-esteem to know that, even in a time of personal need, it's possible to still be of service to others.