Changing the Language of Engagement

High Five (US Navy wikimedia commons)In our work at Creating the Future, we seek to change the questions embedded in the day-to-day work of individuals and organizations, so everyone naturally brings out the best in each other and in our world. This involves an intentional focus on language and how we use it to move conversations forward, to result in positive, systemic change in our communities.

In my own work, I have been noticing a groundswell of opinion that revising the language we use about engagement will be an important step in involving individuals and groups thorough service. Specifically, by eliminating references to using volunteers, volunteer programs, volunteers as a free commodity, and the need we have for volunteers in our organizations, organizations are taking dramatic steps forward in impactful community engagement.

In a recent blog post, Tricia Thompson of Points of Light opined that it is time to stop framing the systems through which organizations engage volunteers as “programs” and, instead, position them as “strategies.”  This shift in language can lead to a dramatic change in the way volunteerism is seen as a resource. Rather than the “volunteer program” being in competition with other programs that need funding and serve clients, the organization can view volunteerism as a strategic initiative that is an asset for both the community and clients.  Such a change can also help organizations look at creative and innovative ways that volunteerism can be woven into their organization since it is no longer perceived as stand-alone “program.”

The Reimagining Service movement has inspired organizations in every sector to change the ways volunteerism is perceived and has moved entire communities to look at service through a different lens. By acknowledging – and backing up with data – that investment in volunteerism is necessary in order to achieve desired impact, we eliminate the perception that volunteers are a free resource. As a result, organizations from all three sectors are working together to ensure that adequate resources are allocated to supporting the engagement of citizens in relevant and mutually-rewarding service.

Oftentimes, community benefit organizations market their “need” for volunteers. This is yet another area where we are seeing a change in language reap tremendous benefits.  As Sarah Jane Rehnborg, PhD, and her colleagues point out in Strategic Volunteer Engagement, presenting volunteerism as a need focuses on only the motives of the organization rather than taking a more relationship-oriented approach that acknowledges mutual benefit.  In addition to driving a more value-focused conversation, changing the language about volunteerism to present it as an opportunity is a more effective marketing and recruiting approach. Just as in product marketing, individuals are more likely to pay attention and take action when messages highlight the benefits to them of becoming engaged.

Finally, we are also beginning to see a shift in the job title and responsibilities of the staff member responsible for facilitating volunteerism in an organization. The traditional title of “volunteer coordinator” or “director of volunteer services” is being used less often and the person in the role is no longer responsible for supervising volunteers directly – that responsibility is spread among all members of the paid staff. Organizations are creating a role for a “coordinator of community engagement” and broadening the job duties. Their responsibilities encompass the preparation of staff members to more effectively work with volunteers – both traditional and non-traditional, developing innovative and creative ways to engage a diverse range of community members  in a variety of work throughout the organization, and ensuring that those who become involved have a positive experience and become advocates for the organization.

There can be tremendous power – and potential for innovation – when we change our words and language to expand the ways we think about engaging the community authentically in the achievement of positive community change.

  • What is your organization’s vision for community engagement?
  • What opportunities do you have to change the ways you and your colleagues discuss volunteerism and engagement?
  • What would a change in language and actions around service make possible for your organization and community?
  • What would people inside your organization – and outside in the community – need to believe and value, in order to achieve authentic, mutually-beneficial community engagement?

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