Reflections on volunteering, from outside and in

As she tries to volunteer for the Obama campaign, the Nonprofiteer has developed more and more respect for theorists of volunteer management who argue that too many nonprofits treat volunteers as free labor and too few treat them as opportunities for community engagement. (For an eloquent statement of that position, please see Jennifer Woodill’s piece in the Spring issue of Nonprofit Quarterly.)

Yet she understands that from the standpoint of the campaign (or the nonprofit), the object is to get the job done, not to make volunteers feel good about themselves. So the challenge becomes persuading charity/campaign staff that including volunteers IS getting the job done.

One doesn’t want to go too far with this, that is, to the point of assigning busy-work just to keep volunteers happy. But at the same time nonprofits (and campaigns) should be alert to the fact that staff (and current volunteers) may be motivated to EXCLUDE prospective volunteers for reasons not of the agency’s but of their own. What are those reasons?

  • It’s often easier at the beginning to do something than to train someone to do something, no matter how apt a pupil the trainee may be. Unless staff [and current volunteers] are recognized for their efforts as trainers and/or compensated for spending a certain amount of time on that task, including volunteers will always be the project that drops to the bottom of the list.
  • Every institution has a finite amount of power, recognition and access to central decision-making, and every person brought into the institution is a potential rival for these goodies to every person who’s already there. Again, unless staff and current volunteers are somehow rewarded for being inclusionary, the natural rewards of being exclusionary will win out every time.

Serious grassroots critiques of current volunteer management approaches suggest that the charity/campaign’s principles of efficiency, resource development and control need to be replaced with more democratic principles. The Nonprofiteer disagrees: again, the task is to get the job done, and democracies are not always the most efficient systems for getting jobs done. (Lest you think that’s a slam on democracies, consider that inefficiency is what the Founders had in mind.)

But even the most efficient agency can benefit from effective deployment of volunteers, provided they’re allowed to get in. Examine your own agency for obstacles to use of volunteers, from a complete lack of a volunteer program to a staff member charged with their training who never actually schedules a volunteer orientation to an established volunteer who’s somehow never encountered a new volunteer’s resume containing any useful skills; and then figure out how senior staff and/or the Board’s human resources committee can straighten this out.

And while you’re at it, could you mention to the Obama campaign that the Nonprofiteer is pounding on the door?


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2 Responses to “Reflections on volunteering, from outside and in”

  1. Alanna Shaikh Says:

    I have worked for organizations that used things like “volunteer contracts” basically a promise from the volunteer to commit a certain schedule or for a certain amount of time. A certainty that the volunteer will come back and be reliable goes a long way in convincing organzations to use them.

  2. Vanessa Says:

    My best volunteering experiences have been where they are clear expectations set for both sides. I felt like I learned the most and I believe that the organizations were able to take advantage of skills that I possess.

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