Generating satisfying volunteer experiences: How to design National Days of Service volunteer projects

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Stephanie Maas1,2,Lucas Meijs1, Jeffrey Brudney3

1Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 3University of North Carolina Wilmington, USA.

The way in which people volunteer is changing. An increasing trend is event-based, short-term activities, such as National Day of Service (NDS) volunteering events, rather than long-term, traditional or ongoing volunteer commitments. NDS events are common across the globe, for example, 9/11 Day, Make a Difference Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, Sewa Day in 25 different countries, Mandela Day in South Africa, and NLdoet in the Netherlands – just to name a few. All of these examples are nationwide volunteering events in which individuals and groups support nonprofit organizations by contributing their time to one-day service projects. In NDS events volunteers may cook for the elderly, maintain buildings, gardens and playgrounds, support a fun afternoon for people with disabilities, and so forth.

These events mobilize large numbers of people to engage in volunteer service, creating enormous amounts of donated labor to help communities. But organizers of NDS events also intend to enhance the profile and create an ethic of volunteering. Intentions to continue volunteering typically depend on volunteer satisfaction, and volunteer managers are interested in achieving retention. This goal is not easy, due to the limited contact time between volunteer and volunteer management; moreover, general volunteer management practices used for long-term volunteer commitments might not work. Nevertheless, nonprofits can plan, structure, and organize NDS projects far in advance to enhance satisfaction of volunteer participants. So, how to design a NDS volunteer project to promote volunteer satisfaction?

To answer this question, we conducted semi-structured interviews, participant observations, and focus groups in the context of a NDS event in the Netherlands: NLdoet. Data emanate from nonprofit organizations, volunteer centers, participant observers and volunteers involved in NLdoet.

The answer: Host nonprofit organizations can elicit volunteer job satisfaction by designing NDS projects that create 1) a sense of added value, 2) support productivity, and 3) make volunteers feel comfortable. You now might ask: how to create this sense of added value, support productivity and make volunteers feel comfortable within a NDS?

First, simply put, to create a sense of added value NDS volunteers must feel that they add value and have meaningful experiences: Organize a volunteer activity that is meaningful, has real impact and affects beneficiaries, the nonprofit and/or the community at large. Moreover, the volunteer activity should be a suitable and logical choice as a NDS project. An organization should pick or create a NDS activity that shows importance, urgency and necessity — something that cannot be done regular staff and volunteers. One example is repairing the fence of a Petting Zoo, especially when it is clear that the regular volunteers are already overloaded with keeping the Petting Zoo open; or creating a wall-painting in a residential care environment, based on the understanding that the organization lacks the budget to do so professionally.

Additionally, to create greater impact, NDS volunteers should be provided the opportunity to interact with beneficiaries or clients. In addition, providing feedback to the one-day volunteers – either by nonprofit staff, regular volunteers and/or the beneficiaries themselves — and recognizing their efforts also create a sense of added value. Tell them how the organization will profit from the work done at the NDS! And of course, give them a pat on the back, a thank you or other small momentos.

Second, to support a sense of productivity toward NDS volunteers, the chosen one-day service project should have a clear beginning and end with a visible result. Most importantly, it should be completed at the end of a long day. When the volunteer project cannot be completed, or the result of volunteer efforts is unnoticeable the next day, a lack of fulfillment can surface. Necessary equipment and tools should be available and working properly, as operational problems may frustrate volunteers. Likewise, host nonprofits should make decisions about structuring NDS projects in advance, to ensure that NDS volunteers start immediately and can focus on carrying out the work at hand. Interestingly, a satisfying NDS project should feel a bit heroic; volunteers will welcome some muscle strain in the evening or the next day after completing a project that could only be completed by working hard.

Lastly, how to make volunteers feel comfortable? NDS volunteers typically are not engaged with and are largely uninformed about the host nonprofit organization. Host nonprofits can make volunteers feel comfortable by providing sufficient social support and having sufficient staff members or regular volunteers present at the NDS to assist and answer questions. Furthermore, limiting volunteers’ autonomy and responsibility over the NDS project and interaction with beneficiaries also makes NDS volunteers feel more comfortable. Compared to ongoing volunteers who have background and experience at the host nonprofit, NDS volunteers prefer that the organization exercise greater direction over their work.

When both volunteers as well as the host organization look back on the NDS with satisfaction, the event is definitely a success. The above are only a few suggestions on how to design a NDS volunteer project to elicit satisfying volunteer experiences. If you want to know more about how to design a one-day service project to promote volunteer satisfaction, please check out our recently published full paper here.

Original open access NVSQ article: Maas, S.A., Meijs, L.C.P.M. & Brudney, J.L. (2020). ‘Designing “National Day of Service” Projects to Promote Volunteer Job Satisfaction’. Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly. DOI: 10.1177/0899764020982664.