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Volunteering is an activity whose purpose is to provide benefit and/or help to a program, group, or field. In most cases, volunteering is considered to be benevolent in nature. Often times there exists a duelist motivation for participating. A distinct personal motivation for accomplishing a task that has a public outcome.

In Portland there is a strong culture of participation[1] in volunteering. Which is not to say there are many programs in the city, but rather the percentage of participation within these programs appear to be impressive. While in other regions of the United States, there exists an unspoken rule that 'volunteering is good' and 'good people volunteer' it is left as impersonal virtue at best. More often than not volunteering by virtue is enough to motivate a person to participate in a single volunteering event, such as a walk-a-thon to raise funding. However, this volunteering tends to be short-lived.



An agency is the operational term for an organization with altruistic goals. In volunteering it is any organization that can potentially accept and leverage volunteer work force as a resource. .

Examples might include

  • Oregon Food Bank link - which serves to provide food to needy families
  • Salvation Army White Shield Center link - which provides intervention services to adolescent girls.


Programs are distinct efforts that can be defined and addressed by the agency. Sometimes an agency only has one major program, such as a shelter, but may have a couple of alternate programs, such as a job search or case working.

Examples could include:

  • Wildflowers Program link(providing shelter and mentoring for adolescent girls)
  • Fresh Alliance link) (volunteer used for inspecting perishable food donated by grocery stores)

The Clients

Clients are the term given to those a program strives to benefit. The homeless who attend a shelter could be called the clients. It is a safe term for use between agencies without implying judgment. They are also called participants or members.

The Advocates

Is often the term for volunteers within a programs that depend on consistent attendance. Advocates tend to be committed talent individuals who receive training from professional staff, and can often provide auxiliary support to certified staff. For example, advocates may function as case workers to help a client obtain low income housing. They may also be an extra set of hands to help a registered nurse help a patient from a bed to a wheel chair.


Sustainable volunteering is an idea that means more than some in Portland. It is not simply a buzzword for what might considered a noble characteristic, but rather a clear operational destination. It is not enough to say that sustainability is good for a volunteering program. In Portland it is a necessity.

Burnout & Churn

Most volunteer coordinators will agree that a key factor in volunteering is burn-out. This is also addressed in the business term churn, which identifies the relationship between the amount of new customers entering versus the amount of current customers leave. While Portland's noble tendency to participate is high, there still exists the constant burden of churn.

While most one-time events tend not to suffer churn only in its stages, such as planning and preparation. Churn is a sizable opponent to volunteering programs that depend on consistent reliable participation over a long time. This is because in these situations, the tasks tend to require training, and an initial investment on the behalf of the program to equip the new volunteer.

For example, training a new volunteer might require 6 hours from another volunteer. That is 6 hours of skilled volunteering (The ratio benefit is around 5:1 to unskilled hours). So the program is investing 30 hours in order to gain at the very least 30 hours return. Calculate that with the most common churn departure which usually happens around 10 to 12 hours. This puts programs at a negative 18 hours for every new volunteer that fails to follow-through.

The counter-churn activities tend to revolve around accurate disclosure of what the actual activities entail. Couple this with an in-depth interview and screen process. Unfortunately this is only a stop gap.

Personal Stories: The Volunteer's Super Fuel

What often proves to be a powerful motivator for consistent volunteering is a personal story. A situation that occurred in the past for a volunteer that serves as drive to participate in a related program. The more the volunteer participates, the more important the personal story becomes.

For example, a person might have suffered economical disaster in the past, leading to the humiliation of begging and homelessness. In their greatest time of need, they are blessed with access to a shelter. A shelter which is able to provide safety, food, and medical attention free of charge. This incredible gift not only ensured their survival, but allowed them to use what little resources they already had to recover from their situation. They eventually are successful in rejoining an economic class, but will forever remember time when they were cared for without expectation of return. This person, fueled by their past help, is perfectly suited to volunteer consistently, powerfully in a shelter related program.

Not all personal stories are as polar. The truth be told there is no formula, only a basic pattern that a program or idea has provided a benefit in a past, and now the volunteer can work to propel the values further by their involvement.

Types of Agencies

Agencies tend to be highly evolved in a manner that matches grant requirements, local needs and community participation. That being said there are common topics that programs tend to reside in. Some agencies will work to provide a combination of the services, while a primary service will define it. For example a shelter might provide food and safety as a core service, it might also be equipped with a case worker to help clients obtain financial relief.


Agencies which serve to provide the most critical needs for survival. Safety, food, water, and clothing are the big services. Most shelters provide a range of services that can be identified within Maslow's Hierarchy of needs. Shelters tend to demonstrate the value of its volunteering force most quickly. The cliche shelter is the Soup Kitchen, but there are other more complex shelters. Fortified shelters such as ones for domestic violence and teen mothers for example. There are also 'wet' and 'dry' shelters which indicate whether clients are intoxicated or drug addicts. Some are gender specific or address a minority in some way. Portland Native Americans and Veterans are some. (More about Shelter)


Resources tend to provide a range of shelter services such as food and clothing, but only as provisions. Services stop at the door. From food to furniture, a client is required to visit the location for help. The most common resource agencies would be the local thrift stores, Good Will and Salvation army, though there are other resource programs that are more time sensitive. Emergency disaster services for example can setup a base in order to provide clean water to flood victims. Intervention agencies have pantries or kitchens that are set up to provide a struggling family with milk and eggs which will be consumed the next morning.


Intervention can be more complex in nature, since their services tend to be corrective in nature. Intervention programs are often responsible for 'stepping-in' to address a situation considered inadequate by government institutions. Foster care and child services could be considered intervention programs.


A program based on providing 1 on 1 education and training to a client. It depends on a volunteer being involved with a client's life between 9 months to a year. The most critical form of mentoring focuses on life skills and parenting, where most clients are women. Skills that traditionally are delivered in a family setting, but were missing in their upbringing. Mentoring helps to correct that, by bridging the gaps with skills proven by a successful adult. Mentoring is a powerful form of volunteering in some ways the most difficult and often said to be the most rewarding. Mentoring can be a meta-service that exists across many other agencies.


Recreation centers tend to focus on secondary or elective interests that exist outside of survival and recovery. Though not considered by some as critical, almost every recovery program will contain recreation services in some way. A domestic violence shelter my provide shelter and security, but they will most assuredly provide a recreation such as bead making or painting. Recreation services can often be the unspoken light in on otherwise dark situation.


See also