Volunteerism guru spreads her message in Israel

For organizations looking for volunteers, Susan Ellis has a word of advice: Be careful what you wish for.

ellis 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ellis 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For organizations looking for volunteers, Susan J. Ellis has a word of advice: Be careful what you wish for. Too many organizations put out a call asking for new volunteers before really defining what role they want them to play, according to Ellis, president and founder of Energize, Inc., a training, consulting, and publishing firm that specializes in volunteerism and runs the largest Internet resource on the subject at e-volunteerism.com. "When managers hear that volunteers are coming, they often get a glow in their eyes - 'aren't volunteers wonderful,'" explained the volunteerism expert, who is in Israel this week as the keynote speaker at the country's first-ever conference on volunteering, which was held Tuesday in Jerusalem. The event was organized by the Yad Sarah Organization and the Leir Center for Volunteer Management. "While one has to understand the benefits of bringing in volunteers, the drawbacks must also be noted," she said. Ellis, who started her work in this field 30 years ago, has authored 12 books and travels the world lecturing on the subject, noted that even if an organization recruited the most highly skilled and motivated volunteers, a failure to utilize those people efficiently made for a rather unpleasant experience all around. "To work with volunteers appropriately, an organization must figure out what it needs and then carve out the relevant assignments for each person," she continued, adding that getting the most out of those willing to contribute their precious time and services for free was hard, often frustrating work for those in charge. Tuesday's conference, which included an address from Pensioners Affairs Minister Rafi Eitan and was attended by many organizations and social action groups, focused on how those leading volunteer initiatives can stay inspired. "There are many factors that can lead to burnout [of volunteer leaders]," said Ellis. "Firstly, there is often a huge assumption by organizations that the work provided by volunteers is free and obviously, it's not. If an organization does not budget for expenses incurred, it can be very frustrating." Another problem, Ellis said, was the assumption that while "volunteers are very nice, they are really amateurs and not very helpful." "Either you value their contribution or you don't," Ellis said. She explained that the key to ensuring that volunteers feel fulfilled and keep coming back to help was showing them that they are really valued. "People want to feel appreciated, and that does not always [mean] monetary gifts," she said. "One way... is including the volunteer staff in the decision-making process with the paid staff. Training and support is important too." Although Ellis, who is Jewish, has visited Israel - which prides itself on its community spirit - several times in the past, this is the first time she has come in her professional capacity. "While I am very much an outsider here, I have noticed that Israel has a large measure of the pioneering spirit," she said, pointing out the immense amount of volunteering seen during last summer's war. As well as noting the work of those who founded the state and set up community-focused kibbutzim and moshavim, Ellis said that the "religious thread" also drew people into giving back to the community. "Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have strong traditions of charity work," said Ellis. "It is the religious drive here, less prevalent in secular countries, that makes people inclined to volunteer."