Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Library Volunteer Mystery

Where do you find volunteers and how do you get them to keep coming back?

I have been with my library for five years and we have struggled with the volunteer issue.  We primarily advertise for volunteers within our building although I do make requests and announcements at local community events and civic meetings as well.  In the past we have also offered a Teen Advisory Board with a volunteering component.  None of these methods have been overly successful.

I have found that high school students seeking volunteer hours are often only seeking to complete a handful of hours.  While one might say, anything is better than nothing, I disagree.  It takes time and effort from an already short staff to train volunteers, so when those volunteers do not stay very long they have cost us more time than they have provided by their attempt to help.

Once or twice we have had adults volunteer on a semi-regular basis as a requirement for some type of unemployment benefit, but these normally quit after they have found a job.

I will say that this year I can claim some relative success in regards to our Summer Carnival.  This year is our 3rd  of our annual carnival and this year we had 9 volunteers!  This is more than we have had in the previous years, combined!  In the first year we had 5 volunteers sign up and only one show up for the carnival.  Last year, I think we had 3 volunteers.  This year we had 9!!  This year we actually were able to open all of our games and I was able to act as a runner to bring water to everyone and relieve people for potty breaks.

What really makes me sad is that I see other organizations doing so much better.  At the last Chamber of Commerce event, they had over 50 volunteers and every year at the Literacy Council's Haunted House they have enough volunteers to build, decorate, and "haunt" an entire building for several weeks!

I send emails, I call local businesses, I ask patrons, I promote volunteering at the schools, but the volunteers are just not there.  Is my community unique or is there ambivalence towards library support and volunteering in most communities?


  1. Not having tested this theory; but pretty sure it will work....

    Lets do some backing up.
    Volunteers are usually three types of people.
    1) Community Service (yay for credit hours)
    2) Boredom (lets face it, some people do get bored)
    3) Actual Devotion to the greater need of libraries (sadly not as popular of a group)

    So, how can you get to the Third type of Volunteer? Lets roll back some more.

    I wanted to get some tech help over the summer since I will be swamped with presentations, meetings, working on a new big project, programming, and to much I would care to deal with; in addition completing daily functions and tasks that really, anyone can do.

    So I asked for volunteers. None. Zip. Notta.
    I asked for Interns, I had to actually interview these people. (UnPaid).

    This leads me to Theory 1) Call them interns. Interns is a much better phrase than volunteer, plus you can spin it with:
    1) Preparing for A Job
    2) Awesome Resume Attachment
    3) Work Experience

    Now, the next step is to find things that people will be proud about or excited to do. Make things a challenge. So ask for an intern to
    "Radically Re-Adjust Shelves to Make Looking for Books Easier"

    Catchy spot light header for someone who will essentially "reading shelves" (as my library calls it).

    Tech Support, at least in my opinion, is easy to find help. Find the kids or adults who like technology, but just aint up to par to have an IT Job. Offer them some classes (which I assume your library has already) and train them on basic things. Or purchase training software, then circulate that software.

    The reason for the Carnival Success, is its fun! Kids (usually) love doing games and showing others they are in charge of said game.

    So what I suggest is not calling it something like "volunteer" as many children and some adults get turned off on. Volunteer comes with "community service" or "work that no one wants to do".

    Interns, on the other hand, sound like having a real job but not making money. Spin the fun of the internship first, before you throw in that its unpaid.

    Again, Challenges, are a big thing. Come up with Project Names, and ask for those interns.

    Hope this helps.

    -Brian Pichman
    Twitter: bpichman

  2. Also, giving someone a "role" in organization versus a random volunteer will make that person want to stay.

    For instance, volunteers are often shifted around and given tasks no one wants to do. Thats how volunteers seem themselves (as being a volunteer at one point in life).

    But giving them a specific task, that they come in once a week, daily, or monthly for, shows that they have a responsibility, something they can look back and be proud on. As that intern (volunteer) grows and matures, offer them more roles and responsibilities. Let them improve and grow.