Why Volunteerism is the Key to Your Mission

We spent several days last month at Susan G. Komen’s national peer-to-peer meeting in Dallas. Komen was started by Nancy Brinker in 1982. Like many nonprofits (and people) who are entering middle age, it’s a good time to take stock of one’s successes and shortcomings to better chart a course for the future. If I had to sum up the focus of the three days of meetings in one word, it would be “volunteerism.” To recapture the power of volunteerism that was responsible for the organization’s best days. 

The keynote speaker at the meeting was Jeff Ross, one of only five volunteers who have been inducted into the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life Hall of Fame. He is sometimes called “the voice of Relay” because his message is about the power of volunteerism. He knows what he is talking about, being responsible for raising millions of dollars for ACS. 

One of the key concepts that drove the success of Relay is the level of volunteer empowerment both during its creation and through its maturation. Relay’s volunteer empowerment is a perfect manifestation of economist Daniel Pink’s “Trifecta of Satisfaction.”

Pink’s research tells us about what people really find to be meaningful in his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” According to Pink, three common factors lead to better performance and satisfaction in all aspects of people’s lives — at work, at school, at home, wherever: 

  1. Autonomy — being self-directed
  2. Mastery — improving at something important
  3. Purpose — involvement in something meaningful beyond themselves
 Photo by  rawpixel  on  Unsplash

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Relay is the largest volunteer-driven event in the world, with leadership volunteerism as its backbone. In many organizations’ P2P walks, the opportunity to lead is in an honorary chair role, in a task-doer role – the task being “show up and smile.” In Relay, leadership volunteers decide darned near everything, or at least they did during Relay’s explosive growth. 

Relay volunteers make many meaningful decisions about event location, income goal, logistics, event date, etc. The biggest visible difference in method from other fundraising models is the extent to which volunteer leadership actually leads. Relay volunteers lead

Relay and Susan G. Komen have a lot in common; both are entering middle age. Relay sprang from nothing in 1985 to raising more than $400 million per year at its peak. In spite of that gargantuan success, no other nonprofit has been able to put the volunteer-driven model to work in the same way. Why is this model so hard to replicate?

Motivating for maximum performance begins with autonomy. To paraphrase Pink, people need autonomy over what they do (task), when they do it (time), with whom they do it (team), and how they do it (technique). When these conditions are met, people become engaged, and engagement leads to mastery — becoming better at something that matters. Finally, the opportunity to be involved in a greater good results in a “purpose motive,” which many people come to embrace as central to their lives. 

Here’s an irony: The very things that satisfy volunteer leaders are threatening to staff. Satisfying one group means the other group becomes less satisfied. 

Before the Great Recession, Relay field staff members recognized and fostered volunteer leadership with the blessing of their own leadership. However, because of massive staff turnover during and since the recession, that organizational value has diminished. Staff members became accountable for revenue, not so much for volunteer management. (This is a gross generalization and is not true in every case.) 

Predictably, it’s hard for staff members to let other people make decisions that impact their own performance metrics. Staff members have a hard time letting go of control of the event, wanting instead to preserve their autonomy. Maintaining that control, however, is costly in revenue. A volunteer’s autonomy, competence, and mastery can’t exist if the volunteer is under the control of a staff person. But as a staff person, giving up autonomy to a volunteer is threatening and dissatisfying. Staff members are evaluated on revenue, not volunteer empowerment. 

To make things more complicated, empowerment is a matter of degrees, not an on/off switch. Imagine I am your event staff and you are my volunteer. I am going to put you in charge of tent erection. To avoid overburdening you and to make sure you do it correctly, I am going to tell you where to get the tent, where the tent should go, when it should be put up, and when it should be taken down. This ensures that I don’t end up fixing it later while making it easy for the volunteer. How empowered does that make the volunteer?

Compare this volunteer job with the things we know might make a person motivated— autonomy (none), mastery (none), and being part of something bigger (barely). There is not much there that makes you likely to continue volunteering. 

Relay in its heyday, however, figured out how to walk the fine line of control. It implemented enough control to keep the brand and people safe but not so much that control by staff inspired feelings of lack of autonomy and lack of ability to achieve mastery. At Relay, if you were the volunteer in charge of the tents, you were in charge of the tents. 

Other elements of volunteer management contributed to Relay’s success, such as relentless recognition of not just fundraising but of leadership volunteerism. Volunteer leaders are recognized for their — wait for it — autonomy and mastery in the context of a big Relay universe, which is for sure something bigger than oneself. 

The Great Recession caused staff to panic and to take greater control of Relay. This instigated Relay’s gradual decline, driven primarily by the loss of volunteer satisfaction. Management’s focus on revenue versus volunteer management contributed to changes in volunteer handling. Staff members were always fully accountable for revenue, but during the recession, there was less focus on how well they managed volunteers. To preserve their own satisfaction and in the absence of leadership pushing in another direction, staff members began to assert more control over the volunteers, diminishing volunteer satisfaction. 

Through it all, ACS was collecting very little data. The success of Relay for Life lay in the thousands of volunteer leaders who drove it. But Relay didn’t really study volunteer leadership in an empirical way.

Nowhere, to our knowledge, was data captured that would allow Relay to fully understand the relationship between volunteer leadership and fundraising. For example, event committee leadership was not tracked in the same way that participants and team captains were tracked. We take this a proof positive that the American Cancer Society leadership did not fully understand the engine of volunteer empowerment. If it did, the data capture would have been as good as on other fronts. 

And in this regard, Relay is not alone. We are unaware of any national peer-to-peer series that tracks volunteer leadership in the same way that fundraisers and donors are tracked.

Susan G. Komen has a challenge in front of it. Wisely, the organization has studied the history of peer-to-peer and its own prior success. The organization’s wisdom is the reason that Jeff Ross told his story on the first day of their national P2P training. Jeff Ross is a volunteer – autonomous and empowered, success in his volunteerism, and fighting a battle in league with millions of others. A trifecta. 

Susan G. Komen is about to be More Than Pink.