You Can't Make Someone Volunteer

I'm going to start way out in left field and I promise we'll make our way back to my point.


I was a terrible child. I tell my husband stories of me as a child and he laughs and is horrified at how difficult I was for my parents. You see, even as a five year old child, I some how was extremely aware that no one could force me to respect them. No one could force me to do something that I saw no worth in. I believed very strongly, and still do to this day, that respect was earned.


Similarly, you cannot force someone to do anything. Yes, if someone is in a position of authority, over you, you can be required to do something. However, if that something is so repulsing, so repellant to you, if it violates your moral compass, you have the choice, the often very difficult choice, of leaving that position.


I went to school for technical theatre and worked in that field for nearly a decade. I languished in a job in that industry for nearly two years under a boss who absolutely and almost methodically wrecked my mental health. And I vowed when I left not only that job, but that industry, to never let a job ruin my mental health again and to remember my worth. When next I was stuck in a position with a superior who demonstrated absolutely no respect for me as a person, I stayed as long as I felt mentally comfortable, and then I left.


Now, what does this have to do with volunteering and what does volunteering have to do with the dog world? Over and over I see people at dog events bemoan the lack of volunteers. And indeed, there are not enough volunteers to go around to make events happen smoothly and easily. Often I see people preaching for newcomers to get out and join a dog club.


And then come the qualifiers to these statements: "Volunteer! (you shouldn't need incentive, you should devote your entire day to volunteering, you shouldn't complain, you shouldn't have opinions)." Or: "Join your all breed club! (But put in your dues, don't complain, don't question the status quo, and understand things aren't going to change)"


And here's the thing. Those qualifiers? Those qualifiers are aversive, not only to me, but to many other people. People want to matter, they want to have a say. They want to have some flexibility in their day. Essentially saying: "No, this is how it's always been done, so people just need to do it" is not at all inviting to the people you want to volunteer.


Yes, if there aren't volunteers, if there aren't new club members, eventually events will disappear. And it is often argued that this should be incentive enough for people. "Volunteer at shows or there won't be any shows." And I think what people don't realize is some, perhaps many, people will just shrug and say "That's a shame."


People should not be expected to forfeit their autonomy and dignity to make a show or trial or club happen. Just because someone is newer to something doesn't mean they don't have relevant experience. It doesn't mean they don't have intensity of experience obtained in a few years that many people don't achieve in a lifetime. A person who plans 50 events a year for a living and has been working for two years has many times more experience in many ways than the person who has planned one dog show a year for the last fifty years.


I understand that letting people have control, letting them have a say can be problematic. What if they say something that you don't support? What if they promote the club wrong and ruin all your hard work? Having an up to date website or Facebook page isn't that important...right? Why should you let a pro-handler do an Instagram takeover? What even is that and how might it help marketing? These are all new ideas, but they've been proven time and again to be effective marketing in other fields and industries. The dog world should be taking note but instead often they shy away from learning the new concepts.


Letting people in and have a say will do so much more to foster a community that saying: join us and do what we say. I understand that's how it's always been. I understand previous generations had to suffer through that system. But look at the world today. Regardless of how you feel about it, the world is beginning to stand up for their mental health, for their work life balance. People are beginning to recognize when they are being taken advantage of and not stand for it. And those changes mean things have to be approached differently.


If we have a shortage of volunteers and club members we should be looking at why. And I would argue that the number one reason why people don't volunteer is because they feel they won't be respected. Again, it is aversive to most people to say: you need to do this no questions asked.


Other reasons why people don't volunteer? Many people are too nervous or too new. Many people have no idea that volunteers are even needed. Very rarely do I see premiums with an obvious way to volunteer. Very rarely do I see posts from clubs asking for volunteers and that there will be the following incentives: lunch, free entry, raffle tickets, etc.


I want to share a relevant story of what happened to me very recently. Over six months ago, I offered to be an AKC Temperament Test (ATT) evaluator for an upcoming cluster of shows. It's been an enjoyable cluster for me in the past. I want to see the ATT offered more often. I'm qualified. So I was happy to volunteer my time, provided I could get my own dogs tested. In exchange, I would happily test the other evaluators' dogs.


This had been the arrangement up until a few months ago when we were told we would be paid for the work. That was an awesome bonus, I was happy to volunteer my time, but getting paid for work that, likely should be paid, was nice recognition. However, recently we learned that there would be no day of show entries accepted because of COVID regulations. No big deal. I asked if that meant we needed to enter our own dogs. I was told, yes.


Again, no problem. I went to the form and realized that payment had to be submitted with the form. However, I had agreed to be an evaluator provided I could get my dogs evaluated as the stipulation for me evaluating. I asked about this and was told that we were expected to pay. Less than an hour later we were informed that we would not be getting paid for our time either. 'That's too much. They shouldn't be paid as much as a conformation judge with twenty years of experience'. Is what the event organizer, who had gone to bat for the evaluators again and again with the club board, was told when she proposed paying the evaluators.


In relatively short order, I decided to withdraw from the event entirely. I certainly feel badly since I had agreed to evaluate months ago. However, I had agreed to evaluate under certain terms and as the club reneged on that agreement, I believe my choice was justifiable. To be an AKC Temperament Test judge you must fill out an application, meet experience criteria, and then pay AKC a fee. It is a position that does require expertise and we were told that for an entire day's work judging we would receive free lunch As I said before, I value myself, I value my work, I value my capabilities too highly to see all of that expertise treated with such disregard and the inability to follow through on an agreement.


A volunteer Huntmaster and two volunteers helping slip my dogs

Please note, I volunteer at nearly every event I attend. I've helped plan flyball tournaments, CGC/Trick and Temperament Test events, I've held positions in clubs, I regularly spend hours at a time being Huntmaster or Paddock Master, I have been a steward before, I've timed for rally, I've bar set in agility, I've timed for Scent Work, I've showed up to trials and tournaments to work even when I had no dogs entered, my dogs help certify green dogs almost every single lure coursing trial, I've line judged and foul judged in racing, I've helped clubs add various sports to their repertoire, and I've helped release more people's dogs in running events than I can even count. This is not coming from someone who doesn't volunteer. This is coming from someone who volunteers all the time but understands very clearly the barrier to getting more people to volunteer.


So how can we effectively get more people to volunteer? As I've said, we can harp on volunteering until we're blue in the face and that is only a deterrent to many people who view it as a chore. Make volunteering more flexible. Incentivize it and you'll get more volunteers.


I run 2-5 dogs at an given event. I just cannot afford to commit to an entire day of ring stewarding. But I can set bars in agility for an hour. I can wrangle rats in Barn Hunt for twenty minutes. I can Huntmaster a breed or two in between my dogs. Expecting someone to work the entire day with zero flexibility is going to be a deterrent to volunteers who want to enjoy the trial with their own dog(s) as well.


Recognize why a particular volunteer position might not be suited to everyone. Volunteering can be aversive for people in and of itself. I have severe social anxiety. I still volunteer but stewarding where I have to talk to tons of people in a day is rough mentally for me. And I am far from alone. Not everyone is going to be comfortable in those kinds of positions and it's not fair to them to say they don't love the sport because they are choosing to place value on their mental health.


In conclusion, I will always appreciate everyone who puts on the time. Thank you for your work. But just because this system has always been this way and people just need to suck it up and put in the time for the good of everyone doesn't mean that's how things have to stay. Clearly something is broken. Saying: you have to volunteer or you don't love the sport can often make people feel ashamed, guilty, or just repelled from the whole situation. It doesn't feel like a welcoming or encouraging thing for people hesitating about volunteering to hear and could serve to drive them away.


Should people who love their sports volunteer? Yes, they should. But there are valid reasons to not volunteer and people shouldn't feel ashamed of that. Ashamed people don't eagerly volunteer. People's minds aren't going to be changed by telling them they're wrong. Make volunteering seem fun and rewarding upfront. Volunteering is such a valuable tool to understanding the sport and getting a foot in the door but that's not apparent to many people and telling them that isn't going to convince them or change their minds. But give them a free entry. Or chip clips with the kennel club name on it. Or raffle tickets. Or even just a free lunch or a thank you note. Get them hooked and then they can actually see how valuable it is. Saying people just need to just suck it up and do it for the common good is not going to attract people. Full stop. Don't brow-beat potential volunteers. That is what will help. Don't make the idea of volunteering aversive. Make it rewarding. That is what will help.

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