ALA Annual Conference 2012: Volunteers, Irresistibly Doing What They Do Well

Offering librarians a chance to provide information to their peers is like offering learning facilitators a chance to facilitate a learning experience for other trainer-teacher-learners: irresistible. Which is why the opportunity to serve as an Ambassador providing information to thousands of attendees at the 2012 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference that ended yesterday in Anaheim drew far more volunteers than we could place.

The role is simple: after attending a 30-minute orientation session online or onsite, conference attendees each serve a two-hour shift at a highly visible information kiosk directly outside the main exhibits hall or at the ALA Membership Pavilion in the center of that huge expanse of vendor exhibits. Working alongside ALA staff and paid greeters who live here in Anaheim, the Ambassadors were part of a seamless team that made life much easier for frantic conference-goers than would otherwise have been the case.

Watching those volunteer Ambassadors at work is to see artists engaged in their art. As is the case with any volunteer matched with an appropriate assignment, the Ambassadors were completely at ease, quick on their feet, calm under pressure, and amazing in their ability to find and share what their colleagues might not so easily have found without their assistance, e.g., locations for sessions; information about programs; pointers about how to take advantage of the free shuttle service that ferried attendees from the convention center to the various hotels where conference events were taking place; and, in a few cases, assistance in loading the conference app onto attendees’ tablets—which, by the way was spectacular for those of us who wanted not only to be able to track the sessions we planned to attend, but to also integrate our own privately-scheduled meetings into that central scheduling aide).

Even more worth noting is what motivates them—something that came to my attention when a colleague asked “What do they get?”, and I was temporarily flummoxed because those of us who recruited, oriented, placed, and checked in with them didn’t offer them anything tangible. The answer, however, is clear to anyone who has ever volunteered, worked with volunteers, and/or read Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. There is what he calls Motivation 3.0—Motivation 1.0 is survival-based motivation, Motivation 2.0 is a carrot-and-stick rewards-and-punishment model, and Motivation 3.0 uses autonomy, engagement, purpose, and mastery—which was clearly on display among the Ambassadors as they worked with little supervision, were completely engaged in what they were doing, understood the purpose of the assignment they had taken, and felt comfortable in their mastery of the skills required to excel at what they were doing. And asked, as they left their shifts this year, how they can return to the assignment next year when the conference is held in Chicago.

It really was a stunning example to anyone interested in designing, implementing, and nurturing a volunteer program: trust volunteers, don’t micromanage them, provide them with work that appeals to them and uses their skills effectively, and they’ll match what you receive from the best members of your paid staff.

By definition, volunteer opportunities are going to attract those who are willing to provide something without expectation of receiving tangible rewards. But those oh-so-intangible Motivation 3.0 rewards will always attract a first-rate group of volunteers who excel at what they do. Serve the constituencies they have agreed to serve. And contribute to the continuing development of the communities we all so clearly crave.

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