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Working the Flip: What Leaders Can Learn About Engagement From Volunteer Orgs

Thursday, October 14, 2021


Barely more than one-third. That was the average percentage of corporate, for-profit team members engaged in their work and their organization in the United States during the first half of 2021, according to recently released national Gallup data.

Despite companies’ tremendous efforts to measure and affect positive influence on this statistic, the number has not fluctuated much during the last 20-some years of measurement. Many seasoned talent and organizational development practitioners bore witness to the shift from an attempt to capture employee satisfaction data in the early 2000s to the current, more enlightened approach of gauging team member engagement. Even with the focal shift that aligned with the G12 measures that tap more deeply into the emotional engagement factors, the needle has moved little during the last two decades.

Why is that? Could it be that organizations across the nation are living out a form of the definition of insanity? Most are familiar with this reference. Insanity is defined as the phenomenon where we continue to do the same things yet expect different results.

The traditional model for attempting to elevate organizational engagement has largely remained unchanged: hire people using traditional recruitment systems and processes and then tinker with the levers of team member engagement for individuals, teams, departments, and the entire organization after the people are selected, hired, oriented, onboarded, and prepared to perform in their assigned roles. Could it be that this tried-and-true model for talent acquisition is the culprit that is leading to our definition of insanity? Might we, in corporate society, who desire to see deeper team member engagement, have twisted the formula for attracting talented contributors to deliver upon the mission of our organizations?

For-profit entities need only look over the proverbial fence at their nonprofit and volunteer-supported organizations to see that maybe there is another way to approach individual and organizational engagement. Nonprofit organizations (NPOs) have been leveraging the time, talent, and treasures of dedicated volunteers to generate community impact for decades. NPOs drive mission attainment with a workforce that (at least a portion of which) is not monetarily compensated. Rob Jackson of Rob Jackson Consulting, an international thought leader in the practice of volunteer engagement, adds, “Indeed, volunteers often outnumber paid employees by significant numbers in community impact organizations globally and are frequently, by design, the only people whose efforts directly deliver upon the mission.”


What could be learned from our volunteer-supported sister organizations? What are they doing differently that compels unpaid team members to be deeply engaged in their work, their chosen cause, the beneficiaries, and the impact on their community? What is their secret formula that has led to decades of deep, sustained engagement and the resulting longevity that often accompanies the impassioned emotional connection of volunteer service?

Hear me out, corporate America. There is a lesson to be gleaned from the human behavior insights of our peer leaders of volunteer engagement.

High-performing volunteer-supported organizations have practiced a simple discipline that ideally occurs during the candidate attraction process. Before an arriving volunteer and an organization render a mutual commitment, the leader asks for the prospective volunteer’s needs, wants, desires, experience, skills, and passions. The leader seeks to discover the why of the volunteer before investing in the mutually beneficial relationship. Why does the leader take the additional time and effort to ask these questions? First, the leader must vet that the person is a strong fit for the culture and mission of the organization. Second, the leader will use the insight gained from the responses to these essential questions to align the individual with work that will feed their expressed passions in meaningful ways.


Cultural and missional fit? Check. Intrinsic motivations aligned with meaningful work? Check. Result? Sustained engagement in the organization and the work. The beneficiary? The volunteer, the organization, the mission, our nation’s communities. A simple equation yielding dramatically different organizational engagement results.

My book Engaging the Head, Heart, and Hands of a Volunteer calls this leadership move the flip. In a typical recruitment interaction, the focus of the interaction is to ensure that the candidate meets the needs of the for-profit organization. When engaging volunteers in the mission of a nonprofit organization, the methodology of attraction, in contrast, encourages the interviewer to flip the conversation to ensure the focus remains on meeting the needs of the individual. When this intentional practice leads to purposeful placement within the organization, organic engagement occurs.

The focus on engagement does not stop with the attraction process in community involvement organizations. Jackson, who also is a recognized volunteer engagement expert from the UK, continues, “This alignment of intrinsic motivations with meaningful work is adjusted throughout the relationship the volunteer experiences with the NPO. As their interests, needs, wants, and wishes change over time, the adept leader seeks to understand these changes and readjust the fit so the volunteer, the organization, and the mission all continue to reap the benefits of truly engaged talent.”

What could corporate entities learn from this flip methodology? What role may the elevation of candidate intrinsic motivation in the prehire conversation have on future sustained team-member engagement? In what ways could this simple flip transform the entire current corporate recruiting practice to yield future engagement data well above 36 percent?

This flip may be the impetus to break the cycle of engagement insanity of the last two decades. Intrinsic motivation matters. Passion matters. Fulfillment matters. The heart is at the center of the engagement equation.

About the Author

Barry Altland is a writer, speaker, thought leader and published author of the book, Engaging the Head, Heart and Hands of a Volunteer, a simple guide for feeding the passion of those who serve.

Barry blends world-class leadership principles from the for-profit world with his own numerous experiences as a volunteer and leader of volunteers to offer a fresh perspective on volunteer engagement.

In his professional life, Barry has cultivated talent strategies in a variety of industries, ranging from the theme parks of Central Florida to agribusiness, supply chain logistics, financial services and healthcare. He has invested fifteen years developing talent and leadership across all levels of organizations. Barry has served as a collaborative partner to teams and leaders to assess performance inhibitors and devise creative solutions that optimize people, passion and performance. Mr. Altland has designed and facilitated hundreds of workshops and interactive learning experiences.

Barry’s volunteer life spans faith-based service, homeowners association leadership, professional association leadership at the local and national level, working with youth, athletics, education-based volunteerism and social impact organizations. Barry has even designed and led corporate social responsibility strategies in multiple companies.

The result of these experiences is content-rich guidance for leaders of volunteers to help them lead with Otherliness. As leaders embrace Barry’s unique perspective, they develop into leaders better prepared to touch the hearts of volunteers by engaging them . . . one person at a time.

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