Dear Nonprofiteer, How can volunteers avoid being underestimated and underutilized?

Dear Nonprofiteer:

From the outside
looking in.  On one hand, I’m a quiet semi-retired middle-aged lady with an
interest in volunteer work.  On the other hand, what I’m semi-retired from
is a successful law practice that’s still making me good money.  I have
enough of a bank account to be a donor, plus experience in finance,
management, and investment.

How can I present myself to charities whose
mission I admire in a way that brings out facet #2, when facet #1 is all
that strangers will see when I don’t brag and act pushy?  I met the founder
of a nice charity at a business party.  As we chatted I realized I had–or at least I think I had–pertinent experience and good credentials to join
his board.  But as soon as I told him I’d like to learn/do more, he
suggested I pull together a group of college students and join them in a
Sunday of volunteer labor. Teenagers, Nonprofiteer!

When Penny Pritzker
and Henry Kravis say they’re interested in helping a charity out, up they go
onto the Board.  When I say the same thing, I get handed the potato peeler. 
Not that I want to leap onto anyone’s Board: I’m too faithful a reader of
your blog for such reckless ambition.  Nor do I fancy myself someday
telling, say, the Barnes museum how to run their operation.  Within the
supporter/director category, I think I’m average.  But not
bottom-grade, and I may have more to give than some realize.  In my

career I didn’t play Cinderella and wait to be noticed; but in the
nonprofit world I have no idea what to assert, nor how.  Is there a way
to suss out which organizations fit my potential, and then present
myself without understating what I can do for them?

Signed, Withering on
the Vine

Dear Withering:

You’ve identified what unfortunately is a common problem, namely the inability of nonprofits to recognize and utilize a good resource even when it bites them on the butt.  Moreover, I suspect what you’re experiencing happens far more often to female volunteers than male–after all, how could we be expected to have any money or contacts or expertise?

The only way to fight back is to present the nonprofit with information in a form it can’t ignore.  The Nonprofiteer once called the Executive Director of her local YMCA and said, "I’d like to come in and talk to you about what I can do for your agency."  Once the appointment was made–and very few EDs will refuse to give half an hour to someone who says s/he wants to volunteer, especially if it’s said ambigiously enough that it might actually mean the person wants to write a check–she wrote up a resume stressing her skills as a lawyer, writer and consultant to nonprofits and sent it with a note saying, "I’ll look forward to meeting you and to hearing your suggestions about ways I can be helpful."  Result: she arrived at the ED’s office and was greeted by a request to do a specific project tailored to her skills, which was the first of not very many steps to the Board of Directors.  Apparently teachers are right: assigning homework is useful.

Given your broad range of skills, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to write a resume that has even this benighted ED drooling.  As you make your appointment you may want to offer a gentle reproach of the Miss Manners variety: "I’d like to talk to you about SOME OTHER options for helping, as I don’t think the thing you suggested really matches my skills."  Then do the resume-in-advance thing and see whether the ED responds appropriately.

The next step–if he doesn’t–is up to you.  You can either decide that people this clueless deserve to sink under their own weight, or you can take advantage of the expertise you’ve gained by reading this blog to make more pointed suggestions.  Many nonprofit Boards have committees which also include non-Board volunteers; it can be a way of auditioning Board prospects or just a way to get more work done, though there’s rarely a bright line between the two.  So ask him, "Do you have a full Finance Committee, or is the Treasurer going it alone?"  Or "Do you have a strategy for managing your endowment and cash reserves?"  Just the nature of your questions will make it difficult for him to overlook your expertise, and he’ll probably be glad to have you point him in the direction of what you think you might want to do.

You can’t, of course, come right out and say, "I’m rich and could donate if you’d just stop treating me like something you scraped off your shoe;" but any sentient ED will figure that out, especially when faced with a resume showing clearly that you’ve retired early from law practice.  Anyone who can’t gather that means "made money young and now ready to spend it in a worthy manner" shouldn’t be permitted to run a three-card monte game, much less a nonprofit, and clearly isn’t worth your time.

Let me know how these suggestions work out.  Good luck!


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