Millions of potential volunteers are just waiting for the right nonprofit organization to invite them to volunteer. Just about every nonprofit charitable organization uses volunteers in some capacity. For example, in most cases, board members serve without compensation. And, for many nonprofit organizations in the United States, volunteers do all the work, from planting the trees to paying the bills. Even if your organization employs paid staff, volunteers still provide valuable services. Organizations depend on volunteers to staff telephone hotlines, lead scout troops, tutor students, coach youth sports teams, serve hot meals, organize fundraising events, and stuff envelopes. If you’re going to manage a nonprofit organization, you need to know how to work with volunteers.
The classic stereotype of a volunteer is someone who has lots of time to spare and is looking for something to do. Although this perception may have been true in the past, when many women stayed out of the workforce and gave their free time to charity, that stereotype no longer fits; however, even today women still represent the largest majority of volunteers. It’s still true that more women volunteer than men, but people between the ages of 35 and 54 are the likeliest to volunteer. This is the age range when both men and women are likely balancing careers with raising families, not to mention taking care of aging parents, going to the gym, and keeping up with email and social media.
Why is it that people, even very busy ones, volunteer their time? We think it’s because they’ve recognized the benefits of volunteering time to a favorite organization and because nonprofit organizations have become smarter about asking them.
Most start-up organizations depend on volunteers because money to pay staff is unavailable. But the lack of resources isn’t the only thing that drives a nonprofit to operate with an all-volunteer staff. Some nonprofits make a deliberate decision to operate solely with volunteers to contain their costs and to achieve results with a collective effort among people who care deeply enough to contribute their time and energy. Although volunteers don’t expect to be paid every two weeks, that doesn’t mean they come without costs. Recruiting, training, managing, retaining, and thanking volunteers require effort from someone in the organization.
Volunteers perform better if they know what they’re supposed to do. Preparing job descriptions for volunteer positions also helps you supervise better and know what skills you’re looking for in volunteers. Volunteer job descriptions should be even more complete than paid-employee job descriptions. If you can break jobs into small tasks, all the better, because volunteers often share the same job. For example, a different person may answer the office telephone each day of the week. In that case, to bring consistency to the job, you should store by the telephone a job description that includes a list of telephone procedures, staff extensions, frequently used telephone numbers, and other important information. Also, part of your job descriptions should include what background checks your organization will conduct, and that all references listed by the volunteers will be checked.
Many nonprofits invite their volunteers to join a committee. Committees enable volunteers to step forward, offer their best skills, and learn how to do new things. An advantage of forming committees is that it reinforces the social benefits of volunteering. As committee members get to know one another and figure out how to manage their tasks successfully, you or your volunteer coordinator can step back and let them take full responsibility. Using this approach, you find out if the person is reliable, will show up on time, follow through on tasks, and has a good disposition.
You may discover other tasks that can be assigned to additional volunteer committees. The kinds of jobs that need to be done vary, depending on the type of service your organization provides. The point to remember is that volunteer work needs to be organized (and supervised) in much the same way as paid work.
In an all-volunteer organization, the responsibility for ensuring that the work is done in a timely and effective manner resides with the board of directors. The board must be committed to finding new volunteers and supervising their work. And board members must be ready to step in to do a job if no volunteers can be found.