Most lists agree that “volunteer” is one of the top resolutions people make each year. And as fundraisers, we know the importance of volunteers for running profitable events, preparing mailings, presenting our causes in the community and many other roles.
But as overworked nonprofit employees, it’s sometimes hard to volunteer ourselves. Time is limited, we already work more hours than we’re paid for, we can’t find the right fit or (worst of all, in my opinion) when we have volunteered, it’s been less than fulfilling.
My talents are not in volunteer management, and my own volunteering experience is checkered, to say the least. I’ve often been asked to serve in positions that fail to consider my skill set, and I’ve served on a few boards that could be the subject of “what went wrong” case studies at the nextAssociation of Fundraising Professionals conference.
While we won’t solve all the problems volunteers face in 2014, there are things we can all do — for volunteers at our organization or if we want to volunteer — to make the experience more fulfilling for the volunteer and more beneficial for the organization. While there are many good resources available for learning the secrets of volunteer management, following are just a few that have been most elusive in my own experience.
Be honest about the job description
A few years ago, I was asked to take on a volunteer position. I agreed if the organization would agree to one caveat: There was one part of the role I couldn’t do because of a scheduling challenge. “No problem” was the response, but it was — that turned out to be the main thing this organization needed its volunteers to do.
Unfortunately, the eagerness to fill the volunteer slot overrode common sense. I spent the entire time I was in that volunteer position feeling guilty because I wasn’t able to meet the real expectations. And I’m sure the organization was frustrated with me.
Do your homework
If you seek volunteers, talk to the potential volunteer about what he or she wants to receive from the experience. Don’t just assume that a person wants a volunteer position that uses the skills he or she uses (used) at work. Sometimes the most appealing part of a volunteer job is that you can do something you’re passionate about but don’t earn a living doing.
If you are considering being a volunteer, especially if you are looking at a position on a board, take time to carefully review the IRS 990 form. Make sure you agree with the way the organization is managed and how it uses its money. Like all relationships, entering into a board position with the expectation that you will be able to “fix” it once you’re together is the first step to relationship failure.
Do the people assembling the mailing hear later how much money it raised? Do your board members get to hear notes from donors who talk about how glad they are to be part of the work by giving? Are your program volunteers sharing in the kudos your organization receives, and are they praised for their role in those commendations? Don’t simply list your volunteers’ names in the newsletter; instead take time to tell them one on one what positive things happened because of their service.
If you are a volunteer, ask about the results of your work. How much money was saved and made available for the mission as a result of what you did? Was the organization able to do more as a result of your investment of time?
I know this isn’t the all-inclusive list; it’s more my top three pet peeves! And none of them are universal — I have very high regard for people who are fabulous at managing volunteers. When I hear that someone has been volunteering at the same nonprofit for 10, 15, 20 years, I know there is a person on staff who is doing a good job showing that volunteer how much difference he or she is making.
Please use the comments section to share your thoughts and pass along tips to your fellow fundraisers, as well.
This old dog’s resolution for 2014 is to find a volunteer opportunity where my needs are met and the nonprofit’s needs are met. Sorry if that sounds selfish, but let’s face it — a bad fit not only makes for an unhappy volunteer, but for less effective nonprofits, as well.
Here’s to meaningful ways to give back in 2014!
Originally published in NonProfit Pro.