Build Your Volunteer Base Globally

By: Samantha Whitehorne

If you want to expand your association's volunteer base internationally, you need to understand not only how different cultures work but also how they view volunteering. Learn from one expert about what to do to help your global volunteer efforts take off.

Recruiting and retaining volunteers in the United States is difficult enough for associations. So what happens when they look for volunteers in other parts of the world? Laraine Kaminsky, president and founder of global strategy firm GlobalLK, says associations need to understand the framework of a particular country to get their global volunteer strategy off on the right foot. She recently spoke to Associations Now about how different parts of the globe view volunteers, where they find value in volunteerism, and why working with allies in the countries where you are looking to expand your global volunteer presence is crucial.

Associations Now: What's the number-one thing associations need to keep in mind when they are looking for volunteers outside the United States?

Laraine Kaminsky: The actual word "volunteer" has very different meanings across cultures. The notion of doing work without pay is not necessarily of value. In a society like the U.S. and Canada and to a large extent the U.K., the notion of being a volunteer is of high value, whether it's a volunteer in a religious organization or a healthcare organization—something like a candy striper. For example, when I say "candy striper" to you, you have whole context for that. You probably know someone who did that or you may have done it yourself. That's not the case in many other cultures and countries.

Now let's look at cancer research. You probably have a picture in your mind. Maybe it's Susan Komen and pink ribbons. Well, that is a cultural context. For example, there is also the Relay for Life. Not only does it raise money, but it also bands people together and brings about a sense of camaraderie. Companies participate and give back to the community and donate money to the cause because it is a good business practice.

What I'm getting to is that [in these countries] there's a significant culture of volunteerism where people are raised within a society where volunteering is seen as having a lot of different advantages besides helping the organization. There is status involved, there's opportunities involved.

Now if you look at a society like India or China, which are very collectivist cultures, it is the responsibility of the family to take care of everything. So volunteerism is not part of the DNA when you're raised. This is quite different than Western cultures. Individuals are often raised with an element of volunteerism within their families. It's a privilege as well. If your mom and dad were involved in volunteering, that became a part of the structure of your family, and whether it was it was an explicit communication or an implicit communication, there was something in it for you as an individual, as a family, as a community to volunteer.

Let's look again at the Relay for Life, which is in the United States, in Canada, even in Australia. It works for a number of reasons. But if you ask people in India or China to run through the night in streets where there is lots of traffic, people will look at you like you're nuts. So that's the context. Nothing is right or wrong, it's just a different way. In the U.S. model, there are other benefits for volunteering, which may not be the case in other cultures.

How do different cultures value volunteers?

There's a significant value difference across cultures in terms of what a volunteer is, who a volunteer is, and what a volunteer does. So if associations want to look to increase volunteers in different countries and different cultures, they need to start off with communication and an education.

For example, if you look at structures in society, like very highly taxed countries of Northern Europe, the Scandinavian countries, they feel that their high taxes are sufficient and that volunteerism doesn't need to exist. They feel that the state is responsible for it. It's a civic responsibility, not an individual responsibility.

One has to look at the framework of how the country is set up: Is there any status associated with it? What's in it for me if I were to volunteer for the association? And again if you are going to a very hierarchical culture, how you approach [volunteering] is by being very explicit about the amount of status that is associated with it.

What about rewarding and recognizing volunteers across cultures?

It's so important, because it is how you will help build a culture of volunteerism within that country for your organization. The way a volunteer-appreciation evening is held in one culture is not necessarily the way you would hold it in a collectivist culture.

How would you hold it in a collectivist culture?

You would need to showcase that individual as part of that collective, so that their entire team or entire family is invited. You need to make sure respect is shown and that the association's executive director makes a speech and a very nice plaque is presented and a photo is taken with the CEO. You see, there's status involved. There is a whole lot of hierarchy and the community needs to see that the work of this volunteer is of value.

How do you suggest that associations first approach their global volunteer strategy?

My recommendation is to look at volunteerism through a very broad diversity and inclusion and cross-cultural lens and make sure it's adapted for the geographical and cultural appropriateness. What works in one geography will likely not be able to be transplanted into another one. For example, earlier I talked about the Relay for Life. There are some places it would just fail. It's the cost of doing things wrong. It's very hard to recover then.

You need to be proactive and put the cultural lens on prior to going. Be careful and pilot carefully. Make sure you learn your lessons from the challenges and the failures. And from an association perspective, definitely share best practices.

My advice would be that if you found a way of engaging volunteers successfully in a particular country, write that up and share it with your colleagues. This is hard work, and those who have done it well should really share it with their peers. Otherwise, everyone loses out.

Earlier you talked about looking at global volunteerism through a broad diversity and inclusion lens. This is difficult for associations when they don't have a presence in a particular country. How important is it to find a partner to help out with this?

I would say extremely important. It's not strategic not to do it. Clearly if you're going into a country, you've already got some type of footprint there. The best way of engaging volunteers in the new country is by using people you have on the ground already.

Working with them and having them work with you is also important. They know the rules of engagement there. And the more you can have them partner with you, the more they will be able to engage and help you.

In some cases what you're doing is saying that you can only afford to pay three people to help you with your efforts in that country. In some cases, you may not be able to pay them. But either way, you need them as allies simply because they are going to remain on the ground there. You want to engage them and have them work with you on the journey and then reward them accordingly. Also, you want to make sure you educate your partners.

For example, say you have a small office in Singapore and you're looking to go into the rest of Asia, which is sometimes the model I get asked [about]. It's a huge geography, so certainly use as many people as you can who you are familiar with.

Do you have any other recommendations for associations?

What I have found is that there's a lot of fanfare at the beginning of associations' annual meetings saying we have 75 countries represented and what not. But one of the things that I think can truly be done to grow and leverage the notion of global volunteerism is to have a special session at the annual meeting for people outside the U.S. to talk about it. Let them talk about the culture of volunteerism in their countries. In other words, they are mentoring you in a way.

Things like that make international guests feel that they have a voice, so it's a win-win for everyone involved. You've got these people coming, so you can do focus groups and pick their brains for more information. You just have to take advantage of the opportunities available to you. Just doing that can mean even greater success in your global volunteer effort.

Laraine Kaminsky is president and founder of GlobalLK, a company focusing on global diversity and inclusion strategy. Email: [email protected]

Samantha Whitehorne is managing editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Learn More

Laraine Kaminsky will speak on this topic with Chip Deale, CAE, at the Association International Conference, taking place March 30 to April 1 in Washington, DC. Their session, "The Culture of Volunteerism Outside the U.S.: Implications for Associations," will be held at 10:15 a.m. on March 31.

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is deputy editor of Associations Now in Washington, DC.