Dear Nonprofiteer, Volunteer me out!

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I am part of a group of dedicated volunteers ready to pull our hair out….or walk out.  We all give our time at a weekly bingo fundraiser game for a GLBT social services organization.  This event provides a needed source of income for the agency.  More important, it provides a needed alcohol-free social event for people of all ages and orientations.  (The GLBT community tends to center around bars and caters to the young).  The problem is that while the sponsoring organization professes its support, by the actions of the staff we are forgotten and dismissed as burdensome. 

We’re not asking for personal recognition, only for things that will make bingo run better and produce more revenue, such as inclusion in the group’s advertising in the local papers.  But often we can’t even get the basics necessary to run the game: either no one is around to give us the change fund or we’re given a useless collection of twenties rather than a workable assortment of ones, fives and tens.  Even the required license to hold the bingo game expired and no one bothered to renew it until we as volunteers closed the game down to protect ourselves from liability.  And the staff, which doesn’t seem to understand the financial mechanics of the game, is always in a big hurry to criticize our bookkeeping and–specifically–to claim that our deposit is light/short/missing funds.

My guess is that bingo was created by some earlier generation of staffers, now gone from the agency, and that the current staff has never learned about its purpose or operation because it hasn’t had to, with volunteers to do all the work.  We see the value in bingo: people come in tired and haggard but they always leave happy if for no other reason than joining in a community where birthdays, anniversaries and holidays are celebrated together as a family.  We also see the benefit in terms of funds we raise.  And while as volunteers we do our share of the work and are glad to do it, we are tired of fighting for support and for others to do what is not our responsibility.  Where should we go from here?  Signed, Burned Out on Bingo

Dear Burned Out:

Your question actually contains two questions: where the volunteers should go from here, and where the agency should go from here.  As a volunteer, you have the right to say, "You’re not paying me enough to do this," and walk out the door; and there are times when that’s not only the most satisfying but the most useful thing you can do.  For, as the great Joni Mitchell says, "Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone?"  Sometimes the only way to get the staff of a nonprofit agency to recognize what the volunteers are contributing is to withdraw that contribution.

But first you should try a simple exercise: calculate how much revenue bingo produces every week.  (Feel free to add in the amount volunteers donate every week–not in terms of time but in actual cash money.  At most agencies, volunteers are among the most generous donors.  If each of you is giving $500 a year, then bingo is generating $10 a week from each of you, and that should be added to the direct take from the game.)  Then take the list of things you want done to support it–inclusion in ads, usable change, assistance with calculating each night’s take–and figure out their total cost in staff time, that is, the total number of hours per week they would take.  Then go see the Executive Director and ask him/her whether $2000 per week in revenue is worth 5 hours per week of staff time. 

(You may want to supplement your dollars-only calculus with an accounting of volunteer time–there are 5 of us, we each give 10 hours per week–but that’s only to make the point that staff time has a huge multiplier effect: 5 hours of staff time will produce 50 hours of volunteer time, which will in turn produce $2000 of money.  But make sure your bottom line is actual dollars, because no matter what charities say–and with a few exceptions like Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, where the actual product is created by volunteers–they don’t really value volunteer time because it can’t be used to pay the rent.  And you can’t quite blame them: in a society where things cost money, things that can’t be converted into money are bound to be de-valued.)

But 5 hours for $2000 is a bargain, so most likely the Executive Director’s answer will be "yes," and then you’re in a position to pin down exactly who will provide that 5 hours, and when, and doing what.  Then you all can go back to doing what you love: providing a focal point for your community.

On the other hand, the answer may be "yes" and then the staff time may not be forthcoming.  Why not?  Maybe the staff in question is actually "worth" $500 an hour in other activities (soliciting major individual gifts, say), so 5 hours of its time for $2000 is actually a bad deal for the agency.  Very few Executive Directors will say this directly–honestly, very few of them know it–but if you get lip-service instead of action it will be because the staff doesn’t see the value of the activity.  Maybe that’s their mistake–certainly community-building that uses volunteers and generates revenue sounds like the Platonic ideal activity for a community center–but, as the great Yogi Berra said, "If they ain’t comin’, you can’t stop ’em."  If the agency’s staff can’t grasp the benefit of what you’re doing, you should take that benefit and go confer it somewhere else.  As a parting shot you may wish to take your calculus (dollars generated versus staff time required) and send a copy of it to the Board president, so that someone other than you at least asks the Executive Director about the collapse of bingo–but don’t expect any reversal of fortune.

As for where the nonprofit should go from here, that’s implicit in what I’ve already said.  Before they start recruiting volunteers, nonprofits should understand that free labor is not free–it always requires supplementary paid labor.  So each agency should do its own version of a balance sheet: how much revenue will this activity generate (including the increased donations from volunteers who feel a magnified sense of ownership in the agency)?  How much staff time will it cost?  I have nothing but respect for the Executive Director who turned down my request for staff time on a volunteer project I was doing, saying, "I started the [volunteer project] to raise awareness and give volunteers a way to be more involved and committed to [the agency].  But if it’s going to take 8 hours of staff time a week, that’s time our development staff could better spend on the capital campaign."  Okay, then: we pulled the plug on the project.

What’s intolerable is for nonprofits to pretend to support volunteers while actually hoping they and their project will go away spontaneously.  It’s always hard to tell people that their services are no longer required on a particular project, but those who refuse to do so will end up with people whose services are unavailable for any project–and who will badmouth the agency for good measure.  That’s a high price to pay for the luxury of not having to look someone in the face and say, "This volunteer project no longer makes sense for us."

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One Response to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Volunteer me out!”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    The hypocrisy you mention–nonprofit management’s “pretend[ing] to support volunteers while actually hoping they and their project will go away spontaneously”–is part of a larger hypocrisy about volunteering as a healthy life activity. We’re urged to believe that volunteer work improves the world, cures the blues, gives meaning to our existence, causes us to know interesting new people, and adds balance to a life stressed by work and family obligations. Well, some portion of volunteering undoubtedly does advance some of these goals. But the typical volunteer is, from the staff-and-management perspective, underfoot and close to useless; and I’m guessing that most volunteers are, like Burned Out the Bingo Casualty, made more frustrated than happy by their work.

    If volunteering really does improve volunteers’ lives and by extension has good effects on social welfare (less depression, more Puttnam-style engagement with civic life), then we should change nonprofit law and policy to encourage organizations to adopt more volunteer-friendly policies. If, contrariwise, it’s mostly a crock, we need to tone down the ideology that says you’re a bad guy if you don’t volunteer.

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