Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Volunteer Perspective

Recently, I stumbled on request for volunteers for a particular genealogy group. Once upon a time, I offered to volunteer for this group and never heard from anyone in that capacity ever again.

That got me thinking...

I see lots of requests for volunteers. Some are sincere. Some are generic. Some are desperate. Some are exasperated--like it's a member's obligation to serve.

I first started volunteering in a public library when my son was a baby. One afternoon a week, I escaped from home and processed incoming books. It was busy work that didn't involve a baby. It was nice. The library branch manager loved me. The library staff not so much. I often overhead their disdain for volunteers. They said volunteers didn't do what they were told. They were flaky. I was there every week and did my job, but it didn't change their opinion. Why would anyone want to volunteer for that?

Once when I joined a genealogy society, I indicated an interest in volunteering by checking the "Yes I want to volunteer" box my initial application. I never heard from anyone on that matter ever again.

Twice I have offered to help groups kick up their online presence with social media tools and blogs. Both times the offers weren't enthusiastically received. 

The next time I offered to volunteer for a genealogy group, I did so in person (at a conference) with an officer of the society. We had a great talk. Then I never heard from anyone ever again. 

This should get you thinking...

Are you having a hard time recruiting volunteers for your genealogy group/club/association/society? Ask yourself these questions:

Have you determined all the different volunteer opportunities within your group? "We need volunteers" won't cut it. What tasks are out there? Describe them. What do they entail? How many hours? On-site or at home? Any other benefits or perks?

Do you have these opportunities clearly featured on your web site, blog, and newsletter? If you don't put the call out on all your available channels, you're missing out on a massive untapped pool of talent. Don't forget to ask for help at meetings, too.

When someone does indicate an interest in volunteering, do you have a process or chain of command for replying to the person in a timely manner? Are all your officers aware of the process and on board with it? If a volunteer wants to serve in a specific area such as conference planning, make sure the conference planning chairperson is aware of the volunteer. 

Do you show appreciation for your volunteers? Regularly? Sincere thank-yous go a long way. So do cards, small token gifts, and recognition in newsletters and meetings.

Have you asked people to volunteer? I don't mean as a generic request at the bottom of your newsletter. I mean have you approached Betty, complimented her outgoing personality, and then asked if she'd be a newcomer greeter for meetings?

Does your group foster a volunteer-friendly environment? Nobody likes dictatorships, infighting, disorganization or preschool sandbox tantrums. If your nominating committee has trouble finding warm bodies for the ballot, maybe it's because nobody wants to deal with your group's brand of drama.

The need for genealogy society volunteers is greater than the effort put forth to get said volunteers. That's my opinion. You can take it or leave it. I just find it both frustrating and amusing that some of the very groups for which I offered to serve--and never heard from--are now asking for volunteers.

By the way, I now have two wonderful volunteer gigs in my life. Both groups had officers who reached out to me at the 2011 FGS conference and I said yes to their requests. 

All they had to do was ask.


  1. I am a member of a society locally that begs for volunteers at every quarterly meeting and in newsletters. But their members are all 60+ years old and many have served in some capacity. They need young blood. I brought a couple friends with me to this meeting on Saturday and we spoke to one of the board members who welcomed us with open arms. I feel like I'm taking on too much volunteer work these days but I volunteered to help with social media for the society. They desperately need it. At the meeting they had a moment of silence for a board member who had recently passed away. Then spoke of another member who had fallen ill this year and is in a nursing home now. I'm not sure they get the whole blog/Twitter thing. They have a FB presence but need more.

    A Chicago area grad student stepped up recently to be their one person publicity committee. I hope to be joining her and working on the social media. We'll see.

    My girlfriend volunteered for membership after being told that the person wanted to step down. Then was told the opposite so I'm not sure what's going on there.

    Bottom line is, I feel, at least around here, societies need to learn how (and be willing to learn) to draw in younger people and speak their language. If they do not many of them are going to die off and fade into the sunset because there won't be new blood to take over.

  2. You're very lucky to be welcomed with open arms, and they're very lucky to have you.

    Thank you for being part of the discussion. The subject just struck a nerve with me because I keep hearing how hard it is to find volunteers and I've found it hard to be placed as a volunteer. Time for a little society soul searching.

  3. I agree with Jen, well because I am said person. I am still in talks with the society about volunteering and will speak with someone tomorrow on the phone. The position I really wanted to volunteer in seems to not be avail (guess I will find out for sure tomorrow). But, there are 4 others open. To be honest I am not sure if I will be the right person for those. I know by the information sent, that I am not for at least two of them. But, I am not sure what the other two positions are.

    I do agree that if you want your society to move with the changes of the genealogy community, you need to open it up to the younger generations as well. Because, they are the ones that are going to bring in more of that said generation. Jen and I both have talked with those genealogists in the area that are even younger than us trying to get more involvement (and by the way, I am not a member yet, but want them to see the growth we can help them with).
    We shall see what happens.

  4. I've had this same thing happen to me. I volunteer, then never back. The only thing I was ever able to volunteer for successfully was bringing coffee and donuts to the monthly genealogy society meeting. My son's school was the same way: encouraged volunteerism, but when you signed up, they never called.

  5. I have worked for our public library system for almost twenty years. I can speak to how we do things in our neck of the woods.

    Our volunteers are extremely valued. In fact we have a co-ordinator who recruits and supports those who give time to our system.

    Every year we honor these dedicated people with a Volunteer Celebration. I have been part of the committee to organize the event for many years.

    We provide a lovely breakfast, have an entertaining speaker and award door prizes.

    Another part of the program is to acknowledge volunteers who have "donated" many hours of service. Provided are lovely gifts for each milestone.

    After reading your post I feel doubly proud of how our library honors our volunteers!

  6. Deb, I would love to volunteer in your library. Thanks for the comment!

  7. I am not by any means thin-skinned, but this topic is a sensitive one for me. In addition to the generational barrier one has to cross to be a legitimate contributing member of a "traditional" genealogical society, for me, there is also a regional or racial barrier, which is even more disappointing. It is unfortunate that a state like NC that prides itself on being located in the “Bible Belt” cannot in 2011 unite enough for the common interest of genealogy. I just might write a post on some of the experiences I have had, but for now, I’ll sum it to to say it is very difficult to take part in some of the established genealogical organizations. I would like to leave this comment on a positive note. If you love genuinely love researching family history, allow newbies (who really may not be so ‘new’) into your circle. Welcome our ideas. Call us back. Invite us to your meetings. And embrace different cultures other than your own. It just may prove to be enlightening.

    Enjoyed the post!

  8. Great post, Amy! Societies need to ask for volunteers and then find ways to utilize them. We started a project for my society indexing mortality schedules throughout the state. I asked the board member in charge about putting it in the newsletter and she told me that people will say they will volunteer but then don't do anything. That means that you aren't giving them a task that they can handle, not that they don't want to volunteer. With over half of our membership out of state, we should be getting them involved and making them feel like part of the society. They might not be able to come to our conference, but they can help create content on our website.

    It seems like a lot of board members in many societies think that they have to do everything. Then they feel overloaded and burn out. Then the society gets stuck in a rut and feels unwelcoming. Jen is right. More societies need to be looking for fresh blood to invigorate the society and keep it around in the future.

  9. Amy, I'm glad you brought this up. Thank you so much for commenting. Yours is an issue that needs to be discussed. I hope you share your experiences and ideas for better inclusion on your own blog when you're ready.

  10. We have a great Society and a great group of very dedicated volunteers. I am the youngest by far. I enjoy the company of the elders. I try to learn from them and don't try to take over. Everyone has a job and does it well. They all respect one another and loads of work gets done. I am so thankful I managed to stumble upon this group and not some of the ones you all have experienced.

  11. As a person with a leadership position in an "older style" genealogical society, I can say that finding a balance between "the why it has always been" and "the way it may become" can be quite a tight-rope walk. Drawing in new people is a big part of that balance.

    I find that the problem is not really resistance to change, but not understanding newer technology. I am almost in the dreaded "over 60" category, but have one foot in each world, as I try to help the society move forward.

    What we need is more volunteers, and more new ideas, while preserving the good of the past.

    I like Tina's comment, too. It is important not to make the mistakes she mentions.

    I like your ideas for involving new volunteers, and I will sent a link to this post to our board members. I wonder how many will read it?

  12. Newly retired I am ready to volunteer.

    I have mentioned how I might be able to help to a few people in the groups I have joined, I think I have something to offer but don't want to push myself onto them.

    I guess these people have to get to know me before they entrust me with jobs. I was pleased this week to be asked to write a report for a society newsletter, maybe some more jobs will come my way soon.

  13. I have been a "volunteer" for the past 3 years as Membership Chair (make that the WHOLE MEMBERSHIP COMMITTEE!). I offered to "HELP" and got yhe whole thing dumped in my lap with 2 sessions with the last Chairperson to learn how to make the entries in a database program. All this with having only 3 months of membership in the Society! Things like this are the reasons that people DO NOT VOLUNTEER!!!

  14. GrannyPam, thank you for forwarding this to your members.

    I do want to clarify that my own volunteer hurdles had nothing to do with age differences (in my opinion) or the desire to make bug changes. I understood somewhat why the 2 societies did not take me up on my social media offer. What baffled me were the other times where I offered to volunteer for other things, or filled out an interest card, only to get no response...then later see that they were asking for volunteers.

  15. Anonymous, that you for commenting. Do you have any friends at that society that can help you? Get some allies. Everything shouldn't fall in your hands. Hopefully you can find a way to delegate some things.

    And you're right, your situation is one of the big reasons people are hesitant to volunteer.

  16. Preach it sister! This seems to be a problem in all areas, church, PTA, kids sports, work, etc. etc. There are good volunteers and then there are some real flaky ones. All you can do is offer your time and if they don't take you up on your offer then it is their lost. Also if they don't appreciate my time, input, & what I can do to help them then I say "am out of here this just isn't working for me". Nothing worse then asking for volunteers then not having anything for them to do when they show up at the time they were told to come.

  17. I am a volunteer at our local gene society and have been since 1993, all of our volunteers are in the public library for most of their volunteering and the library has honored us with luncheons, awards, etc., until just recently when their budget was cut so much. I do research for others and as such get many thank yous from the people I help. I do know they have been asking for some volunteers and I was even asked to help with the web page, but I know nothing about web pages other than clicking on the URL, so I know I would be of no help there, so sometimes getting the right job may be why few volunteer.
    I do know I get a lot more out of volunteering than I put in.

  18. I feel extremely lucky. At my very first visit to my local society, I was welcomed with open arms, asked my opinion on certain things, asked what surnames and locales I was researching (and someone even offered some help on one of my lines ... turned out not to be my line, but still, the effort was there), AND after 4 months or so of being a member, I was asked to speak at next month's meeting. I said I would do it (even though it's my very first time). Even though it's small, we have a great bunch of people in our society. I hope to get some young blood in there, and bring them into the 21st century, but that's my own volunteer item :)

    On the other hand, there have also been times when I have volunteered to do some indexing for a certain website (not FamilySearch) and never heard back. I even followed up. Still nothing. I just don't get it.

  19. A great post, Amy, that stimulated interesting comments. I will be retiring shortly and am considering what volunteering to do. Fortunately my local archive centre has a good volunteer programme, with a "welcome" briefing and an annual lunch for volunteers joined by regular staff. Recognition and appreciation is all important, if someone is freely giving their time and skills.

  20. I agree with everyone. I'd write more, but I'd just be repeating what I wrote on's guest post series this past Monday.

    Social Media + Technology + Thinking Outside the Box + Breaking From Tradition = Volunteers and New Members.

    And, ironically, these new (and probably younger) volunteers will know how to do the social media and technology stuff.

    So? Please, please let us in. Just one of us. Take a chance or two. I promise we don't bite.


  21. I belong to two local societies and one thing with volunteering is that some of us never really think we have a particular skill that would be useful. Until someone in the society speaks to us and learns about us- then they find a match and should just ask.

    From belonging to one of these same societies 10 years or so ago, I know that back then, most of them never bothered to even speak to me, much less learn what I could do. This time around, though, they have a much more open and friendly board and a WONDERFUL membership chair who bothers to learn and know about the new members.

    In the other society, all it took was a visit to their library and I had a new set of friends who call on me for easy fun projects and let me be part of it all. And that's what I think is missing- if you don't let people have a say, it's not THEIRS, it is YOURS. And a society, by definition, should be OURS.

    The age gap is wonderful for me, as I love learning from all the great people. But I think for some younger people, they feel a bit left out or overwhelmed at the membership meetings, which is unfortunate since we have the most brilliant meetings with amazing speakers. There is just a fine line between ignoring the new attendees and freaking them out with too much attention.

  22. A lot can depend on who the officers are and especially on who the president is, in any society (or any organization, genealogical or not). With groups composed mostly of older people, such as the two genealogy societies in my area, it becomes a special problem. You can have top officers who are real leaders, or ones who accept the post reluctantly because no one else will, and then pretty much do nothing. As an officer in one of those societies, I can echo the need -- the cry -- for younger members. With four four-year institutions of higher learning in our area, we need a college outreach program. High schools may also be another good recruiting ground. Perhaps a history teacher would be willing to have a genealogist come in and speak about relating the historical events the kids are studying to their own families. It might both spark an interest in genealogy and get the kid really interested in history.

    Just some thoughts.

  23. Though I realize there are big issues with leadership, old blood/new blood, technology gaps, etc., my original issue is simply that there are groups that ask for volunteers and never follow up when they get requests.

    Just fixing the communication problem and getting volunteers (of any age or experience) would grow the group and allow people with different perspectives to work together.

    Really, I just want to end the cycle of societies asking for help, ignoring requests to volunteer, then asking for help again.

  24. Wow, Amy. You have just succeeded in getting this society president to look at this in a new way. I entered this group as a member/volunteer. Now as a board member, I see that when the need arises for help, it is usually the same people doing everything because we don't have a plan for volunteers. I just sent an email to our board members and initiated formulating a plan of action to get us on track. Just what I needed. Thanks!