Volunteering: The Shared Experience

Photo courtesy of Kaiti Saunders Photo courtesy of Kaiti Saunders

Make it so they say, “why not volunteer?” instead of “why volunteer?” Bear with me: I’m going to tell you a story about shared experience and encouraging volunteers.

While attending Washington State University for my first degree, I worked part time at the vet school, took some classes there and had the immensely good fortune to have as an adviser the dean of the school at the time, Dr. Leo Bustad. He wrote a small but powerful book, Compassion: Our Last Great Hope.

Dr. Bustad was much more than a nuclear scientist, World War II prisoner of war, veterinarian and learned college dean. He was a guy who cared about animals and about how people treated them, and did groundbreaking international work in the field of the human-animal bond. The list of Dr. Bustad’s accomplishments is very large, but one thing he lived really has resonated with me my whole life. He knew people needed to feel like they belonged in order to be really useful.

He called it empathy. Tasting salt and breaking bread together was his way of saying cry together, eat together, share, and you will enhance the human experience — gain knowledge, create great things, go places. His life experiences from concentration camp to vet schools helped him see the importance of belonging.

The shared experience is a moment in time when your best friends are right there with you, watching the great rides on the cross country course; or maybe you are silently scribing while the FEI judge next to you in her clipped British accent is giving you scores on the Olympic team rider performing in front of you in the manicured dressage arena.

It’s the laugh you all get out of a funny incident or comment someone makes while you are picking up rails in the warm-up ring. It’s the smile you share, the things you see and do, while with others as a part of a big or small event. It’s getting on social media after the day is done and seeing yourself in the background of photos while Boyd Martin or Phillip Dutton warm-up. It’s talking about what happened with others that know because they were there too.

This special knowledge, this experience, is what makes the day and the time memorable and unique for all of us individually and collectively. It’s what we remember when we think of the day: the feeling that we “belonged” for even perhaps a few hours to a special competition, a special venue, or a special group of people that we really admired and enjoyed.

If you ask someone what they liked the most about their volunteer job, they will have different answers, even from someone who is doing the same job at the same time. Everyone’s experience is different. Each experience is unique.

But, unfortunately, if someone has even a remotely negative experience, that’s the first thing they will remember. Perhaps a jump judge was forgotten when the lunches were brought around, or they couldn’t find any shade or water on a hot day. Perhaps a trainer gave a warm-up volunteer grief. Perhaps a rider walked past or ignored a volunteer raking a path or picking up garbage.

In this way, the negative experience puts a pin in the shared experience balloon. Small acts, comments, or even the opposite — ignoring someone — makes the shared experience into a drudgery that the volunteer tells themselves they will complete the penance but do it no more.

Scientists tell us that shared experience amplifies the experience. This intensity carries over with either bad or good experiences — it’s “more” when with others. As such, a shared experience is very powerful.

A study had subjects taste chocolates. While tasting them at the same time, the subjects reported the chocolates tasted better than when they each tasted a sample alone. The subjects also reported feeling more absorbed in the tasting experience and more in tune with the other participant when they where tasting together.

Psychological scientist Erica Boothby of Yale University, author of the study, says, “I have found that merely doing the same activity at the same time as another person intensifies people’s experiences of that activity, whether it’s something pleasant or unpleasant.” Read more on the study here.

So how do we create positive shared experiences for volunteers in eventing? Eventmanagerblog.com says there are five universals FEELINGS that make any type of event memorable.

  • Fun. One funny incident can make even a serious tone into something memorable.
  • Frustration. Yes, frustration. “The power of frustration is immense.” The articles uses the example of waiting in long lines as a way of making an experience special; a really long wait means there were a huge amount of people, or that the concert was so good it was well worth the long wait. This could translate into giving your volunteers a problem to solve, or finding a faster and better way to do something.
  • Surprise. Unexpected and meaningful surprises make people want to remember the experience and cause them to reach for their phones to record the moment; it’s that special to them. We never know what will happen; often volunteers can be there when something surprising happens and can rectify or help, such as catch a loose horse.
  • Anticipation. Waiting for an event “creates uniqueness and exclusivity” (sounds like eventing!), especially a large event or notable event in a region. Sending out emails, explaining the parking or lunch arrangements, providing a map and a schedule gives volunteers something clear to anticipate, as an example.
  • Spontaneity. Well, the sport of eventing has nothing on concerts for THAT. Both Boyd Martin and Phillip Dutton fell off one right after the other in the CIC2* cross country at Plantation Field! Horses are always adding an unpredictable element to the sport, and this covers the sheer enjoyment of not knowing what might happen, so you have to be there to find out.

Finally, enhancing the volunteer shared experience has to do with food. For centuries, even probably as far back in time as the beginning of the human social interaction, sharing food was a way to communicate.

Breaking bread together in some form or another is a phrase found in every major worldwide religion. Eating together or sharing food and drink together breaks down social isolation and is culturally extending. Feed your volunteers and try to have at least one period where they are eating together, not individually out on course.

Find a way to get your volunteers together for a party, a social occasion, a year-end banquet, awards dinner, luncheon or appreciation occasion. This helps the volunteers interact with one another and recreate their shared experience; it further enhances their good feelings about the event and willingness to return for additional experiences in the future. It’s all science, folks. We are predictable, and we like to do it over and over.