A covert operation

A few weeks ago, I was in conversation with a lady who volunteers her time for a growing not-for-profit organisation in Australia. In keeping with the theme of this post (read on…!), let’s give her a pseudonym – we’ll call her Anne.

Anne’s role is multifaceted, and among other things she coordinates activities undertaken by other volunteers. She identifies, welcomes and places new volunteers, as well as working closely with existing volunteers to ensure the experience is one that benefits both the volunteer and the organisation.

During our conversation, Anne shared with me details of a growing trend among the volunteers she works with. She has found herself coming into contact with more and more volunteers who are explicitly against any form of recognition of their involvement. At first, I pictured a sort of self-effacing, wave-of-the-hand humility – “oh no, don’t be silly, you don’t need to get up and thank me at the end of the event, I’m just happy to help out” – but the volunteers she was describing went much further.

Introducing: the Covert Volunteer. 

According to Anne, the covert volunteers in her organisation have specifically requested no acknowledgment of their involvement, in the sense of total or near-total anonymity. They have asked that other volunteers and staff not be informed of their involvement.

The profile of these volunteers, as far as I have gathered from Anne, tells an interesting story. They:

  • Are previous volunteers with this same organisation
  • ‘Left’ the organisation at some point in recent years for a variety of reasons. These include burnout, interpersonal clashes, or commitments outside the organisation (personal/work) prohibiting their continued involvement
  • Had (generally) returned to the organisation of their own accord, rather than being contacted by Anne or other members of the organisation
  • Are all women (most likely reflecting the fact that the majority of volunteers for this organisation – covert or not – are women)
  • Are now engaged in specific activities that leverage their previous experience with the organisation, and/or their various skills

I was quickly fascinated that, in contrast to much of the conventional wisdom on volunteering, these people had come in search of a volunteer opportunity where they would not be recognised (in the traditional sense) for their contribution. Anne speculates, and I would be inclined to agree, that these women each feel so powerfully about the cause they are supporting (through their volunteering), that any form of recognition takes a back seat. I would go even further, and wonder whether they may feel that having people know about their involvement diminishes, to a certain extent, the intrinsic value of the personal sacrifice they are making with their time, energy and skills.

It’s important to recognise that their contribution does not go completely unnoticed. At the very least, Anne (and in some cases, a handful of others) know of the presence and impact of the covert volunteer. Anne herself does a wonderful job of conveying personally to these volunteers that their contribution is invaluable – so much so, that she honours their request to remain anonymous.

I was not, however, totally surprised to hear of this phenomenon. I have never heard of it happening in such an unambiguous sense, however it does sit with my own perception that volunteers do not necessarily want to be recognised (in traditional ways) for their contribution. Certificates, events, shout-outs and their name in lights – these are not necessarily what volunteers are about.

In fact, the ability to contribute to making the world a better place, in a way which remains unknown (and largely unnoticed) to the majority, is perhaps one of the most fulfilling ways that an individual can make a difference. It seems not that much different to the ‘anonymous donor’ who makes a monetary contribution to a cause, or to the person who helps a stranger on the street, wishes them well and never sees them again. I see a strong correlation with the latter, in particular. For me, it is those tiny, virtually unrecognised moments and actions that often feel the most powerful. I wonder whether the feeling for a covert volunteer is the same – that beautiful, no-frills, personal sense of impact.

Perhaps covert volunteering signals a simplification of how some people are seeking to make a difference. This is not to say their contributions are simplified – they are often working in a way that is specific and highly-skilled – but rather that they are seeking experiences that are personally, uniquely, and quietly fulfilling.

So, covert volunteers – over to you. I’d love for you to (anonymously!) raise your hands and share your motivations and experiences. Is it just for the love of it? What drives you? And most importantly, what can others learn from your experience?


One thought on “A covert operation

  1. very cool:-)…be interesting to see the average age of Anne’s covert volunteers. is it a generational thing as well as a desire to maintain that sense of intrinsic motivation?

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