וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְקֹוָק בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח־הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם: (בראשית יח: א)

The Lord appeared to him by the terebinth of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. (Gen. 18:1)

רש”י: וירא אליו – לבקר את החולה. אמר רבי חמא בר חנינא יום שלישי למילתו היה, ובא הקב”ה ושאל בשלומו:

Rashi: Appeared to him: to visit the sick. Rabbi Hama bar Hanina said that it was the third day after his circumcision and God came to inquire after his well-being.

Volunteers need to be acknowledged both formally and informally, and both individually and as a group. One formal way many congregations do this is with the custom of honoring their bikkur holim volunteers on Shabbat Vayera, when Genesis 18:1 is read from the Torah as part of that week’s parashah. This includes honoring the volunteers with aliyot or sponsoring a kiddush or a luncheon in recognition of their dedicated work.

To understand the motivations that lead people to volunteer is to understand how to retain, nurture, and support them. Jewish volunteering is no different in that respect. In units 1, “Bikkur Holimas Mitzvah,” and 2, “Volunteers in Jewish Communities,” we touched already upon the motivation that brings people to volunteer. To feel appreciated, as with the recognition given on Shabbat Vayera, is one motivation that is nearly universal.

Generally speaking, though, people volunteer because they wish to contribute to a cause they support. Which cause they support depends on a variety of factors; volunteers for bikkur holim, nihum avelim, and similar activities are often doing so because of previous experience—either because of support they received or a lack of support they received during a time of crisis.

Rabbinical students at The Jewish Theological Seminary conducted interviews with volunteers from several synagogue-based bikkur holim groups in Manhattan. They found that almost every one of the volunteers had had a personal experience of crisis in their past that influenced their decision to become volunteers.

Despite your best efforts, not everybody in your community will volunteer. In any community, the pattern of involvement might look something like this:

Pie Chart: 75% Occasional Volunteers, 15% Active Volunteers, 5% Leadership, 5% Others

Your greatest opportunity to recruit more members is to turn more individuals from the “occasional volunteers” category into active volunteers.

The greatest challenge is to keep your volunteers involved. Once somebody agrees to volunteer, they usually want to get to work right away. They need to feel that their work is important and that they contribute to a cause they support. Volunteers generally also are motivated by something they can gain from the experience, be it a feeling of making a difference, the establishment of new relationships, or the development of new skills. It is therefore very important to have concrete tasks or activities ready to channel the enthusiasm of your new volunteers. If that doesn’t happen, their energy will soon face and they will (re)join the 75 percent or drop out completely.

 

Image of a nut (hardware not legume)The following are some basic requirements for volunteers:

  1. As already stated, appreciation and recognition for their general willingness to volunteer and for specific acts performed.
  2. Adequate (and ongoing) training: for example, this curriculum; guest speakers on related topics.
  3. A specific and clearly defined task with a clear deadline: “Josh needs someone to accompany him to chemotherapy on Thursday the 23rd from 1 to 4 p.m.”
  4. A task that matches the individual volunteer’s interests and the person’s motivation for volunteering. If someone volunteers especially because of a desire to meet people and actively help them, that volunteer will grow bored quickly if assigned only administrative tasks. On the other hand, someone who would like to volunteer but is not (or not yet) comfortable with visitation duties might prefer to take on tasks such as picking up prescriptions or helping to organize visits.
  5. To be provided with everything the volunteer needs to fulfill the task: “Here is Josh’s address . . . The chemo is taking place at Xxxx Hospital.”
  6. A safe and friendly environment within the circle of volunteers.
  7. An opportunity to debrief about their bikkur holim work with other volunteers and with clergy. Volunteers will encounter people in various stages of crisis and, in some cases, a volunteer may need to debrief with a more experienced pastoral caregiver and possibly even a mental health professional. This is especially true when volunteers are new to the task, but it applies to all. One way might be to establish small support groups or a buddy system. For example, if Deborah is asked to volunteer to accompany Josh to chemo, Deborah’s buddy Martin should check in with her afterwards, or at least Debbie should be encouraged to give Martin a call. This requires some extra initial coordination to pair volunteers up, but it might pay off in reduced burnout and greater volunteer retention.
  8. Opportunities for feedback. Volunteers benefit from being able to provide feedback to leaders about what is working well and what can be improved. Remember to also pass along to volunteers any positive feedback from the person and family visited, to encourage them. And create a structure for offering feedback about how they can improve, if they need to.

Image of a pad and pencilLooking at your volunteer organization, consider and reflect on the following questions:

  • What is the primary method of recruiting new members? Do you target specific individuals who you think might be a good asset, or do you usually cast a wide net? What platforms of recruiting do you use (announcements in the bulletin board, special events, phone campaigns, personal conversations)?
  • Look again at the pie chart presented in this unit. How does distribution of your bikkur holimgroup compare?
  • What is done in terms of training of new volunteers and ongoing education of existing volunteers?
  • What is done in your community to recognize and appreciate volunteers?

Experience shows that you will have a greater chance of getting someone to volunteer if you manage to combine the person’s preferences and interests with a specific request: “I know you enjoy photography and have an eye for design. Can you help us come up with ideas for a new bikkur holim greeting card that we can send to hospitalized congregants on behalf of the shul?”

Have you ever noticed, when asking for volunteers and passing around a sign-up sheet, that you end up with very few responses? A sign-up sheet gives three impressions:

  • The activity it’s recruiting for isn’t crucial.
  • A congregant can “overlook” the sheet without being noticed and hope someone else will sign up.
  • “Anyone” can do the volunteer work; you’re not really looking for “me.”

Instead, try this: announce the tasks you will need help with and that you will be coming around (or calling on the phone) to ask some of those present for help.

Image of a microscope There is a lot of literature out there with useful tips and strategies on how to create and maintain volunteers in your community. One short book is Helen Little’s Volunteers: How to Get Them, How to Keep Them.[i]

[i] Helen Little, Volunteers: How to Get Them, How to Keep Them. (Naperville, IL: Panacea Press, 1999).