‘Tis the season to let go of bad habits. So can we all please stop saying, “You can’t get people to volunteer anymore?” Better still, can we resolve to gently disagree when others make that claim?

I understand the frustration behind this common lament. Volunteer-dependent organizations are struggling. That includes fire departments and ambulance services, community events, churches, hospitals, food pantries, animal shelters, youth groups, enrichment programs — even hunters ed. And it’s true that finding volunteers is a different challenge than it was, say, 50 years ago. Or at least that’s what gets repeated over and over in articles about the current shortage of volunteers.

But that doesn’t mean we’re not blessed in abundance with people who donate their time and talents to causes, organizations, and service to our rural communities. It seems disrespectful to imply those volunteers don’t exist. And when, as is so often the case, the phrase specifically calls out “young people” — well, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So it’s time to stop moaning about how things have changed, start celebrating what volunteerism looks like today, and make room for the volunteers of tomorrow. Here are some things to keep in mind as we head — resolved — into the new year.

Young people. One hundred percent of the members of our military services are volunteers, and that’s been true since the draft ended in the 1970s. Active duty members don’t get rich serving their country. Almost a quarter of all U.S. veterans return from active duty to live in rural communities, where their employment options may be limited and they face challenges in accessing affordable housing and health care options. Volunteering isn’t a one-and-done thing, so many of those veterans add community service to their list of contributions. And yet, they are painted with the same broad brush when folks say young people don’t volunteer. They have. They do. They will. 

Other young people. Young people who didn’t choose military service also serve their communities. But they may not call it volunteering. “Volunteering” sounds like something for retirees who schedule meetings during the day or meetings that don’t start on time, then drag on and on, meandering from topic to topic while you ponder who’s going to feed and bathe your kids and get them to bed so you can do laundry and have something clean to wear to work in the morning. Those young people may not be standing in line to take on extra jobs that require paying for a babysitter. But they show up other times. They make a difference by shoveling snow off the roof or helping clear storm damage so the elderly neighbor isn’t climbing a ladder or running a chainsaw. They may show up at the home of the bereaved with a rotisserie chicken and deli salads instead of a home-cooked casserole, and that’s okay. It’s better than okay: It’s doable.

Old people. When pandemic lockdowns ended, a lot of folks expected community events to return to normal. But many rural events rely on the contributions of older people. The people who always showed up often have underlying medical conditions and other factors that make them more vulnerable to serious illness or death from Covid-19. Nobody gives older volunteers grief for not driving at night because of concerns about their eyesight. How is it different when older volunteers pull back because of concerns about a global pandemic that hasn’t yet run its course? The broader question to ask, if we want to maintain engagement from older volunteers, is how can we help them feel safe and appreciated?

Accept what people can offer. A friend who was devoted to conservation causes once told my husband he couldn’t ask local businesses for donations to a fundraiser because it made him so anxious he would throw up. I get it. Plugging people into roles that make them that anxious isn’t good for volunteers and it’s not good for organizations. And it’s easy to drive away good people when we make it hard for them to contribute. A friend recently told me she may quit the Extension Master Gardener program, in part because of how much time it takes to log her volunteer hours. Many volunteers don’t understand how much funding depends on that kind of recordkeeping. I suspect the reporting interface was designed by people who don’t live with the limitations of rural internet connectivity.

Consider alternatives. Sometimes there really isn’t anyone willing and able to take on certain volunteer roles. When that happens, instead of trotting out that tired old “can’t get anyone” lament, maybe it’s time to explore other ideas. If something we’ve always done isn’t important enough to anyone to do now, why do it? Can we put the effort into something else instead? There’s some darn good advice here on reorienting away from what you think you need from volunteers and toward what volunteers might need from you.

Except when you can’t. Some volunteer service requires mandated training and practical experience and continuing education. The firefighters and EMTs who serve rural communities for no pay meet the same basic training standards as people who do those jobs for pay in more populated areas. These are serious commitments that impact families as much as the volunteers themselves. Before a firefighter in Wisconsin can perform entry-level fireground tasks they must complete 60 hours of college credit coursework. The last guy in our department who went through basic firefighter training drove 50 miles round trip once a week to the nearest class, getting home in time those nights to get four hours of sleep before he had to get up for work. He also did homework, completed assignments, and passed tests on physical proficiencies and practical skills. There’s additional training for everything from pump operations to how to drive 20 or 30 tons of fire truck through an intersection without getting killed. Training and performance standards help shield our rural municipalities from lawsuits, and that’s important. But I have little patience for rural leaders who pin our problems on “lazy” young people who won’t volunteer while they support economic policies that make it difficult for would-be volunteers to step up.

Train for success. It’s not just fire and EMS volunteers who require training. In almost every organization, there’s a need for training so people can feel successful in their roles. Sure, some people can spot what needs to be done and do it in a way that suits the existing culture and resources of the organization. But most of us want a bit of guidance, some helpful feedback, and someone to help us keep from putting a wrong foot forward. That goes both for people who are uncertain about unfamiliar activities and those who seem to think they already know everything about everything. Yes, training takes effort. It’s definitely not a job for people who prefer to just do everything themselves. When those folks declare that you just can’t get people to volunteer, consider offering to take on training or mentorship tasks yourself.

Say yes. My husband has a talent for training that is highly valued on our volunteer fire department. He’s only a member of that department because he said yes when a friend asked, “What are you doing Tuesday night?” That friend picked him up to go along to the next fire meeting. That was 35 years ago. Back then, some volunteer departments were run like private clubhouses, and you had to be related to someone to join. Not this department: They welcomed him. Years later, the department welcomed me and others unable to meet the requirements for firefighter training but with other skills to offer. (I’ve described some of those skills here and here.) One of our volunteers tried to join a different department before coming to us. They said no. We said yes. That person is now one of our most valued members.

Ask. Sometimes we have to ask for help. One study found that 1 in 4 people say they don’t volunteer because no one asked them. Instead of falling back on “you can’t get people to…” let’s make a greater effort to ask for help and practice showing gratitude to all for whatever contributions they can make.

You might be surprised at who steps up.

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin.

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