In 1736 Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin created what is thought to be the first volunteer fire department in the United States. Named the Union Fire Company, it had 30 firefighters and Franklin was its chief. His mission was to protect the properties of all citizens, not just those who had paid money to insurance companies.
Franklin’s egalitarian fire department and those like it at the time set the pattern for the hundreds of thousands of volunteer firefighters who would selflessly serve their communities in the centuries that followed. Nothing epitomizes community spirit quite like being a volunteer firefighter. However, volunteer fire departments are facing problems, even a crisis in some areas. It’s all to do with attracting and keeping volunteers.
According to a May, 2023 report by the U.S. Fire Administration, “Headlines from communities across the country proclaim that departments have reached a crisis point and that some may have to close if they cannot find more volunteers quickly.” It’s a problem just about anybody who deals with any kind of volunteer activity can relate to, particularly in rural communities.
In this excerpt from the Fire Administration’s report, you only need replace the word “firefighter” with the name of pretty much any volunteer job in your community: “Volunteer departments tend to have a higher proportion of firefighters over the age of 50, and in some rural areas it is not uncommon to find volunteers in their 60s or 70s. About one-third of small-town firefighters are 50 or older.”
Of course, becoming a firefighter requires more training, and exposure to more danger, than, say, someone volunteering to run a summer day camp for kids. But volunteers, whatever their role, are the heart and glue of a community. The fire administration’s report urges departments to create workforce plans to attract and retain volunteers – and points out “workforce planning is also critical for planning staff training needs and succession planning.”
Here are two keywords that cannot be emphasized enough: “succession planning.” It’s certainly not a new concept.
Succession planning is an important concept in agriculture. There are tax specialists who help farmers and ranchers plan for the transition of their land and animals to the next generation. Without proper succession planning, the tax implications can be disastrous. Corporations also have some kind of succession plan to help keep the company alive and prosperous well into the future. Those corporations have succession plans for the business their products, their services, and the leadership of the corporation.
Too often, though, we don’t think in those terms when it comes to our own community.
We have witnessed communities where one person serves as the mayor for two decades in a row. When asked why they continue to serve for so long, they invariably say that no one else steps up so they must keep filling the role. The irony is that no one steps up because the incumbent doesn’t leave.
It’s the same with community volunteers. We all know the quintessential volunteer who has nothing but the community’s best interests at heart and so they take on every volunteer role imaginable. And over time no one else steps up to take over those roles or fill those positions. Consequently, that one person keeps stepping back into that same role, yet often the reason no one new steps up to take over the role is because the role is never vacated.
The role of the volunteer or the organization becomes synonymous with that one volunteer’s name, brand and reputation. No one else feels like they can do the role. And even though that amazing selfless volunteer wants someone else to take over, they often want them to take over and do exactly the same thing that they’ve been doing. Except who wants to take over a role to do things exactly the way the predecessor did? There isn’t only one right way to do things. And new ideas can help add a new freshness to events and organizations.
Or, perhaps, nobody steps up to volunteer because they think the current volunteer doesn’t need help. That’s what happened with the one volunteer caring for the 200-year-old Dorchester Rural Cemetery in New Brunswick. Peter Spence became secretary-treasurer of the cemetery’s board in 1992 but over the years the other board members died and he was left as the “face of the cemetery.”
“It became a very lonely job,” Spence told the Canadian Press last May. But his biggest concern was finding a replacement. He was 75 and afraid nobody would step up to look after the 1,300 plots that include the burial sites of important figures from Canada’s past.
He and the community were fortunate. One of his friends organized a community meeting where 20 people turned up. Eight of them volunteered to help with the landscaping and other maintenance work. One of them, Bob Hickman, said they’re working on a succession plan to attract younger people: “I think we’re one of many cemeteries that are finding themselves at that point where the older people are passing on, and there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell of interest or people interested in preserving the past or the cemeteries as we know them.”
That’s the challenge.
As anyone who has tried to recruit volunteers knows, the recruitment itself is a full-time job. And it’s getting more difficult. The pandemic disrupted volunteer work and many organizations say volunteers who left haven’t come back. According to a March edition of The Philanthropist Journal, volunteer agencies large and small across Canada reported a decrease in volunteer participation during the pandemic and difficulty getting people to return: “‘We’re at a tipping point here,’ says Andrea MacDonald, CEO of United Way PEI. ‘In rural areas especially, the same people are being asked to sit on every board and service club.’”
Indeed, there are volunteers who do sit on every board and service club. We like to refer to them as the STPs – the Same Ten People. Some do it because they feel they have to, others because they want to. But that’s a trap. As a community we have become too reliant on too few volunteers. They are amazing people but part of a good succession plan for volunteer organizations in small-to-medium sized communities is to have a revolving door of sorts.
It takes a conscientious and deliberate effort from those amazing volunteers to step down and make a space, create a vacuum, where others have to step in. A competent, reliable and energetic volunteer can’t simply wait to be kicked out of the job. There is too much respect for that volunteer and the brand and reputation they have. They need to make one more selfless act: volunteer to step back and create a vacuum that allows new people to step into the role.
They need to do that in a way that lets those new volunteers change things, try new things, put their own brand on that volunteer role. If not, those volunteers will quickly leave because no one wants to be micromanaged, criticized, and told what to do. They want to be a leader in their community, a leader and a volunteer, and they need to be given space to contribute, not to maintain the status quo and the name of their predecessor.
This is especially true of younger people.
In the Philanthropist Journal article, Vicki Stroich with Caravan Farm Theatre in British Columbia says organizations need to realize just how the pandemic “has thrown the concept of certainty out the window and that charities and nonprofits have to shift expectations and systems accordingly.”
“‘If we are having a problem engaging young people in our work, is it the young people’s problem or our own outdated modes of thinking and working?’” asks Stroich. One of the challenges to attracting young people is that nowadays they tend to look at volunteerism less as a traditional commitment to regular hours at a particular agency and more as a drop-in activity when they have time.
This is a major problem for succession planning. But there’s no getting around it according to a May 7, 2023 article published by the Voice of America entitled, “Volunteerism is changing in the United States.”
“Nonprofits will need to adapt to this,” said Robert Ashcraft, executive director at the Lodestar Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Innovation at Arizona State University, “especially if they want to bring in young people who want to contribute but not through traditional means.”
But there’s an upside, according to Ashcraft: “with their optimism and energy, young people will also want to bring their ideas to volunteerism, whether it involves climate change, education, the arts and culture.”
We need to make space for new volunteers, particularly young ones. We all know selfless people who are stellar volunteers in their community. However, because of their reputation, and their tireless volunteerism, anyone who might want to volunteer stays on the sidelines. Invariably, everyone complains that no new volunteers are stepping forward.
We need an infusion of new blood. We need a succession plan – a real succession plan that allows for not just new volunteers but new volunteer leaders. We don’t need them to carry on a legacy; we want them to create their own legacy.
That’s how we will create better communities.