A different way to think of volunteer diversity

In my last article I updated a piece from 2015 which encouraged us to stop talking about amateurs and professionals when we refer to volunteers and paid staff. Thank you to everyone who has liked and shared it, the topic seems to have resonated with many people.

Here, I want to briefly expand on that theme, drawing from an excellent article by writer Charles Chu and tying it in with some thinking on diversity by MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and writer Jeff Howe.

Let’s get started.

Examining GK Chesterton’s views on amateurs, Charles Chu makes a great point:

“Saying that professions are becoming more specialized is NOT the same as saying that there is no room for amateurs. And it certainly does not mean amateurs cannot contribute. Take the tech industry, for example. Google, Microsoft, Facebook — all of these big companies were started by amateurs. And then there’s Wikipedia, which, despite being run (almost) entirely by amateurs, has replaced the eminent and professional Encyclopaedia Brittanica. The Internet has shown us there are people willing to make things with no immediate benefit at all. And they do pretty damn good job of it. The amateur is back.” – Charles Chu

Modern technology, particularly through the internet, allows us to tackle issues we would never have previously been able to address. One example is crowdsourcing, my first experience of which was SETI at home.

Still going today, this initiative from Berkeley University of California gets participants to download software to their computer which then analyses radio telescope data from the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence project. There is just too much data for SETI staff to analyse on their own so they engage amateur astronomy enthusiasts – citizen scientists – to volunteer some of their computer power to help.

“The potency of the pixie dust in crowdsourcing is largely a function of the diversity that naturally occurs in any large group of people. Amateurs have always made contributions to disciplines like astronomy and meteorology that thrive on large numbers of observations.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

Taking this further, in their article, “Why we shouldn’t underestimate the power of diversity”, Joi Ito and Jeff Howe look at how society needs to think and work differently to prepare for a future of unknown complexity.

They make a key observation in regard to Eterna (a game where players create designs for synthetic RNA, designs that are then synthesised at Stanford University in the hope of creating new cures for disease):

“Eterna represents a radical rethinking of one of capitalism’s central assumptions, that labor is best allocated through a command-and-control style of management. Eterna instead relies on an attribute – diversity – that has traditionally been underestimated.” – Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

All of which got me thinking. When we think of diversity in the non-profit world are we missing an important aspect? To be fully effective in our work we need not only a mix of people working with and supporting our causes based on gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity etc., but also a mix based on pay category – of paid staff and volunteers.

All this well-meaning amateur nonsense prevents that from happening. Imagine if we talked about any other group of people we want to diversify our workforce from in the way we do volunteers? “They are just disabled people, they can’t be trusted,” That would rightly be outrageous.

We need to see volunteers as key allies in the pursuit of our missions, not obstacles to getting work done or annoyances to be tolerated. Embracing the positive difference volunteers bring and harnessing that to maximum effect alongside the work of paid staff, will result in bigger and better impact on the world we want to create. Science gets this, hence initiatives like SETI at Home and Eterna.

Isn’t it time for non-profit leaders, boards, managers and paid staff to wake up to this potential in our own backyard and start changing the way they talk about volunteers? The work we do is too important not to harness the passion and dedication of citizen support through volunteering.

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