Thoughtful Thursdays — Who’s not here?

Guest post by Liza J Dyer, who’s always talking/learning about volunteer engagement, libraries, and technology.

Picture of wooden doors painted green. There is a chain with a locked padlock hanging from the doors.

Is diversity important in your volunteer program? Is there value in being inclusive and welcoming to volunteers who are different from yourself?

I’m betting your answer to both questions is “yes.” We can agree that it’s important to be inclusive of our diverse community members when it comes to volunteering, but what does that mean?

Closed doors

I discussed this topic with two colleagues recently and we happened upon an interesting thought: volunteer programs can be exclusionary if we want the “most qualified” volunteers based on specific skills that are required for the role. But if we’re hiring volunteers based on limited qualifications, we’re specifically excluding volunteers who may bring other experiences and expertise to our organizations. For example, in my work at a public library, one of the roles that volunteers fill is shelving books. Let’s say, hypothetically, I have one position to fill and two potential volunteers. One volunteer uses a wheelchair and is able to reach all of the shelves except for one. The other volunteer does not use a wheelchair and can reach all of the shelves. If my definition of “qualified” is “able to reach all of the shelves,” then the second volunteer would get the position.

Here’s another hypothetical example: let’s say your volunteer application asks for required personal information, like gender, race, ethnicity, etc. It’s on the application because your organization requires you to show just how diverse the volunteer program is from year to year. Let’s also say that the only options for gender are “male” and “female.” For someone who does not identify according to the gender binary, what might your application tell them about volunteering with your organization? Maybe it would signify an unwelcome environment. Or that they don’t feel seen or recognized by the organization. They might wonder why you need that information, especially on the application where it’s tied to their name and contact information. Why should they trust your organization to keep their information safe?

In both of the above examples, would-be volunteers might be excluded simply because we did not provide the necessary access to our volunteer program. We would be missing out on some potentially amazing volunteers and advocates for our cause. The doors would be closed before they ever had a chance to open.

Welcome, everyone

I’ve been thinking a lot about inclusion lately. A few weeks ago I attended the Nonprofit Technology Conference and, as always, was left feeling inspired and excited. The conference organizers incorporated so many things to make community members feel welcome, like gender neutral restrooms, an all faith prayer room, gender pronoun ribbons for name tags, and a nursing mothers room. None of these things were “special” or came across as an accommodation. They were aspects of the conference that were included because the organizers wanted everyone to feel welcome. They wanted community members to focus on learning and connecting with other attendees, not worrying about where they could go to pray or use a toilet.

What if we thought ahead about what would make potential volunteers feel welcome and included? What might we be able to accomplish if all our volunteers’ energy went directly to the mission and not wondering about how their basic needs can be met? How might these efforts benefit all volunteers? Who might join us who isn’t already involved?

Let’s make a list

I’ve been mentally gathering ideas for ways to provide better access to my organization’s volunteer program. I’ll list a couple of ideas I’ve gathered below, but this is definitely not an exhaustive list.

Onboarding process

  • Only ask for personal information you actually need and tell applicants how it will be used
  • Instead of asking for a preferred first name, say how it will be used; e.g., “name you want on your name badge” or “name you go by”
  • Instead of assuming someone’s gender, ask for their pronouns; e.g., she/her, he/him, they/them, etc.

Website and social media

  • Good text color contrast so people who have low vision or are color blind can read the information (and here’s a good tool for that)
  • Image descriptions so people who are blind and using a screen reader can understand what is on the page
  • Capitalize words in hashtags so people who have dyslexia or are using screen readers can figure out what you’re trying to say; #LikeThis #notlikethis

Things you might want to tell volunteers before their first shift

  • Toilet/restroom situation
  • If the work space is accessible for someone in a wheelchair
  • How long they will be expected to stand or sit during a shift

Let’s do this

This is such an important topic and one that I’m learning about every day. It’s also a discussion that benefits from the expertise and experience of many people. So now it’s your turn.

  1. Why is it important to have a diverse and inclusive volunteer program?
  2. How can we open the doors to be accessible to more people? What barriers can we dismantle?
  3. What resources have you found that may be helpful here?

Feel free to share here or on Twitter with #ttvolmgrs. I look forward to reading your thoughts.