Do or don't: calling volunteers "family"? And why you should use "community" instead
Updated: Apr 23
I'm on several non-profit professional groups across social media and I've always wanted to delve deeper into questions that I give brief answers to in the comments. To protect the privacy of the posters and their organizations, I've removed all names and identifying information.
This colleague works at an organization where the volunteers refer to themselves as "family". This word has been used by the organization and their volunteers long before this colleague started in their volunteer leadership role. The colleague prefers "team" and has tried to "make fetch happen". They wonder if they are being too sensitive and what other words can be used to describe a group of dedicated volunteers.
In less than a week, the post has received 114 comments. Many responses suggested that the poster stick to "team" for a more professional connotation and to set expectations around boundaries that will minimize problematic behavior. Some individuals pointed out that not everyone comes from a happy family and the meaning of "family" can differ based on social and cultural context.
Other responses indicated that they personally like the word "family" because it helps them feel more connected to an organization and other volunteers. Indeed, workplaces have called their paid employees "family" to be more inclusive and caring. Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, moved to using the word "tribe" to describe his employee team- because tribe connotes shared values, with a hierarchy.
But back to the question at hand... my original response was: "I sometimes use community. I wouldn't use family as it can be triggering for some people"
So... why do I use "community"? It's really about relationships!
1) It is shows that your organization has relationships with a group of diverse people who care: I can say "welcome to our volunteer community" when speaking with a candidate about a role they're interested in, without guaranteeing that specific role to them. I can write "thank you for supporting our community of 1,500 volunteers" when I ask for a donation or sponsorship.
2) It unites people based on purpose, values, and interests: Members of a volunteer community are connected to one another because they are all working towards the organization's mission. This also helps with setting boundaries (e.g. "Our volunteer community values transparency- you can read more about this in the volunteer handbook).
3) It is a little more emotive and personal than "team": Most volunteers who donate their time do it because they care. If we want to build strong relationships with volunteers, the words we use need to reflect their caring. 2018 Data from the UK shows that most people volunteer because they want to (1) improve things/ help people, and (2) the cause was really important to them.