Do You Heart Volunteers?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 6th, 2009 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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> It is one thing when you say something and someone actually listens.  It’s even neater when you say something and discover that others, whom you don’t even know, are saying the same thing.   But when the President of the United States says what you were saying, well, that’s just way too cool!  (And I am very jaded when it comes to Presidents of the United States.)

President Obama is urging Americans–whether employed or not–to volunteer, pitch in, give back, help out.  Others have been encouraging that as well, especially those find themselves laid off from their for-profit jobs.  But if they weren’t listening to the rest of us, I hope they listen to President Obama.   But I’m worried that nonprofits just aren’t ready to handle the demand. What is feeding my worry?  Far too many nonprofits do a poor job of handling the volunteers who already have been knocking on their doors.  And until recently, most nonprofits were only getting a trickle. But that trickle adds up to about 4.7 million volunteers nationwide, across the entire sector.  (As an interesting aside:  did you know that nonprofits employ 9.4 million people?  And that when you add in the number of volunteers mentioned above, that’s  10% of the American workforce?  And that, ladies and gentlemen, is more than the combined workforces of the auto and banking industries!)   So, what if everyone listens to the President and the floodgates open?  Are nonprofits prepared to make use of the skills and talents and good will of the volunteers?  Are they prepared for how to integrate the work of the paid staff with the work of the volunteers?  Are they prepared to deal with volunteer expectations and needs?  That seems unlikely. Thus, if you are hoping to use some of those people being urged to volunteer, get busy now.  Here are some of the bare minimums that you should do.  

    1. Identify someone to be your volunteer coordinator because, yes, there needs to be someone who will be the volunteer point person (for both the volunteers and the paid staff), manage the volunteers, cajole the volunteers, stroke the volunteers, etc. 
    1. Identify those jobs that can be done by volunteers and write the job descriptions, including number of hours expected to work and qualifications needed to do the job.  Only create a volunteer position if there is real work that needs doing and a competent person willing to supervise that volunteer.  Volunteers want their work to be needed and valued.  Volunteering isn’t simply a matter of killing time; it is about helping to do important work and, maybe, learning a new skill or two along the way. 
    1. Create a “hiring” process for your volunteers.  The more you do up front to demonstrate the professionalism of your volunteer program, the more likely you will be to get professional, dedicated performance from your volunteers in return.  (Yes, volunteers need to be hired–which implies a screening process.  Not every volunteer who comes knocking needs to be accepted.  If you have specific jobs with specific qualifications that you need to have done, there won’t be a position for everyone who comes looking.  That is okay.  And while we are on this subject, remember:  not every volunteer works out, just as not every employee works out.  Which means that, yes, volunteers may need to be “relieved” of their volunteer duties.  It is okay to say, “No thank you.”  Or, “Thank you very much, but things aren’t working out as we had hoped.”)
  1. Determine how you will appreciate your volunteers.  Will it simply be a thank you?”  (Do not under estimate the value of a sincere and appreciative thank you.)  Whatever you do, make sure you know how you will nurture and thank your valued volunteers on whom you want to rely.

 Successful volunteer programs, whether of one or of thousands, do not run themselves or operate successfully by happenstance.  But a good volunteer program can be invaluable, and well worth the investment. The President has made the call to the volunteers.  I’m calling you to be ready now to receive them. 

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.