6 Steps to Volunteer Happiness
I find it useful to think of involvement with nonprofits as another consumer offer, something a "buyer" can get from our organizations. I say that at the risk of sounding crass, I know. But here’s why it works: Most Americans were born into the greatest consumer society in the history of mankind. Like fish that don’t notice the water they swim in, it’s hard for Americans to see the messages and offers to buy that pervade our daily lives on television, the internet and everywhere we look.
The Cambridge Dictionary describes a consumer society this way: one in which people often buy new goods, especially goods that they do not need, and in which a high value is placed on owning many things.
For many people, the outcome of living in a consumer society is the belief that more stuff equals more happiness. So we look forward to the boost in happiness that the next new car, bigger house or the upgraded-thing-of-the-hour will provide.
But, the upgrade doesn’t make us "happy," at least not for long. When the buzz from the Beamer quickly wears off, we start to focus on the next thing that we think will up our happiness quotient.
We truly believe that some thing has the power to make us happier. I turned to the beloved (husband and Turnkey psych expert Otis Fulton).
"Beloved, give me some big words to use about this dynamic."
He answered, "This happiness-seeking through acquisition of material goods is so common that psychologists have given it a name, the 'hedonic treadmill.' Despite all our efforts to increase our happiness by acquiring stuff, research shows it doesn’t work."
When you live in a consumer society, it’s hard to stop running on that big wheel. The sea of offers and encouragement to buy in which you swim is hard to see. If, however, we are able to break through, as nonprofits, our offer is something entirely different.
Nonprofits offer something that gets us off the hedonic treadmill.
And if we handle those who take our offer correctly, they will stay off the treadmill—at least long enough to contribute their time and energy to our causes, and be measurably happier.
In another blog, Otis and I wrote about Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” in which Pink chronicles research that concludes people find satisfaction—happiness—when the following conditions are present:
- Autonomy—the freedom to act without being micromanaged by others
- Mastery—the opportunity to become competent at something meaningful
- Being part of something bigger—the idea that they contribute to some transcendent good
Unlike new kitchen cabinets and granite countertops, being connected to something bigger than themselves does make people measurably happier. According to the U.S. Corporation for National & Community Service, in 2014, 62 million Americans volunteered 7.9 billion hours for organizations. It estimated the value of this volunteer service to be in the neighborhood of $184 billion. According to Daniel Pink’s research, $184 billion bought those people a whole lot of happiness, the kind that lasts.
Nonprofits can create happiness with opportunities for autonomy, mastery and being part of something bigger. Operationally that means things like:
- Aggressively asking volunteers to do meaningful work (autonomy)
- Truly becoming a volunteer-driven organization (autonomy)
- Recognizing those volunteers for having done that work (mastery)
- Promoting volunteers to ever higher levels of decision-making (mastery)
- Physically bringing volunteers together (part of something bigger)
- Keeping volunteers and donors informed (part of something bigger)
By respecting the trifecta of satisfaction, and thoughtfully designing our interactions and positioning our volunteers and donors using the trifecta, we can increase their happiness and meet our goals. If we do our jobs well, they won’t even notice those laminate countertops.
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.