Making the most of high-skill volunteers: initial thoughts

What are high-skill volunteers good for?

  • None of us sits in our strategic planning sessions and says, we want to stuff more envelopes, but that’s what we give our volunteers to do–instead of using them on major projects.
  • Many organizations are used to giving high-level work to interns and trainees and law clerks; why is it harder to do that with adults? Because/but–
  • Volunteer coordinator has a hammer so everyone looks like a nail–whereas interns are  assigned directly to substantive staff.  The coordinator’s job is often defined as “find volunteers to accomplish these menial tasks none of us want to do” and/or “keep the volunteers out of our hair.”  It needs redefining to recognize she’s the gateway to your most valuable resource.
  • Instead use them for projects for which you’re understaffed: if you need a part-time coordinator of major gifts solicitations, use a volunteer; if you need more marketing outreach, use a volunteer; etc.  Note: do NOT use volunteers for grant-writing except in exceptional cases, e.g. an experienced grant-writer and/or foundation program officer is your volunteer.  Explain clearly to the mere writers among your volunteers that, no matter how skilled they are at writing, grant-writing is more a matter of button-pushing and buzzphrase-using, and their skills actually disqualify them from doing it well!

How to identify major projects:

  • Essential: to identify discrete projects on which volunteers can work.  If you have a strategic plan, take a look at what needs doing under it but isn’t getting done.  Particularly suitable for relatively small groups of volunteers, pairs or individuals: research.  If your strategic plan says, “Find new space,” send volunteers out to case the neighborhood, establish prices, do your capital campaign feasibility study.  If it says, “Expand into day-care,” send your volunteers to talk to other day-care centers about what they charge, their costs and cashflow; and so on.  One of the most satisfactory volunteer experiences I ever had was at the Lakeview YMCA, where the Exec Dir looked at my resume and offered me a project directly relevant to my expertise: “Oh, you’ve been a real-estate lawyer; we’re trying to figure out why our residence isn’t filled.”  I did the research, reported to the Board, and they 1) acted on it and 2) put me on the Board.  This is a hole in one in the world of high-skills volunteering.
  • Important: to identify projects on which high-skill volunteers can work independently–independently from you, that is.  The reason so many of us end up assigning busywork to volunteers is that we don’t know how to integrate someone who hired herself into our day-to-day work.  That’s not because “They might leave” or “it’s confidential” or any of the other excuses we give: it’s because we’ve organized ourselves to get our day-to-day work done, and we don’t want to risk having it taken away from us by a volunteer and thus losing our jobs.
  • High-skill volunteers are pretty indigestible in most ongoing projects precisely because they’re not interns or trainees or law clerks–they’re people with significant experience and leadership ability.  So the best way to deploy them is to give them an opportunity to lead.  This, by the way, is why the long-term “Ladies who lunch” model worked so well: the volunteers were told, “Plan the annual event” and off they went.  It was up to them if it took 2 minutes or 2 hours to decide on the color of the tablecloths, and it was up to them to break the larger project into constituent parts and assign them around.  Doubtless you already use largely-unsupervised volunteers for your annual benefit event, though if you think of it they’re not necessarily better qualified to choose table arrangements than to assess spreadsheets.  So come up with those discrete projects.

How to integrate volunteers into those projects

  • Obviously, not everyone can be a leader; but if you find a volunteer leader–and this requires reading his/her resume, taking seriously the experiences shown thereon, and talking to the person to assure yourself of his/her abilities–the best thing to say is, “We need someone to create ____; can you take that on for us?”  Then let the person write plans, recruit other volunteers, set schedules, solve problems; and have either the volunteer coordinator or the substantive area leader supervise the leader, rather than the whole cadre.
  • The reason so many volunteers are turned away is that no organization has extra supervisory capacity, and volunteers require supervising–so let one supervise others, and then instead of having 30 people to manage you’ll have one.  [This is the theory of the Taproot Foundation model, where an “account manager” assembles a team of volunteer professionals to do a project previously identified by the nonprofit.  The account manager’s ass is on the line to produce, and that requires figuring out how to herd the cats she’s dealt herself.  Sorry about mixed metaphors!]
  • The leader, of course, will be happy because s/he’s got The Big MAC —
  1. Meaningful work;
  2. Autonomy; and
  3. Collegiality/community
  • His/her followers will be happy because things a volunteer won’t hear from a staff member (“This is all we’ve got for you to do”) s/he’ll hear from a fellow volunteer–and also, a fellow volunteer is more likely to be able to break off chunks of responsibility and hand them to other volunteers, precisely because s/he isn’t a full-time staff member with turf to protect.

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9 Responses to “Making the most of high-skill volunteers: initial thoughts”

  1. Katherine Heart Says:

    So sorry that the Nonprofiteer has such a low opinion of grant writers. My very first grant award was a volunteer proposal that earned a $45,000 training grant for the home care nurses at a small nonprofit health care agency. Since then my proposals have enjoyed a success rate of 85% or greater and my average grant award for 20 community health projects is over $159,000. A community college seminar “Grant Writing As A Second Career” that I designed is the basis for my new eBook, MAKING MEANING & MONEY AS A GRANT WRITER FOR YOUR CAUSE. Included is a 10-Step Grant Career Action Plan to assist a cadre of well-educated retirees quickly gear up to become successful grant writers for the nonprofit sector … that is, if you’ll let them.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      I don’t have a low opinion of grant-writers; I have a low opinion of grant-readers, and think that their approach disqualifies many good writers from communicating with them successfully. If you’ve been able to overcome that barrier, I salute you.

  2. chris.furuya Says:

    Great post! Permission to link to it on my blog? I’m exploring the topic from a different angle this week.

    BTW, good to see you again! The United Way found your presentation highly useful and impressive.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Absolutely, feel free to link to it. And send me the link so I can learn what you’re thinking on the subject.

      Glad to know United Way was pleased with the presentation. Tell them there’s more where that came from!

  3. Jayne Cravens Says:

    I write about involving and supporting volunteers (try not to say “use volunteers”) on my own blog, and have addressed similar subjects frequently. My blog is:

    Recent related blog topics include:
    * Involve volunteers in your work of managing volunteers (20 April 2010)
    * No more talk of the dollar value of volunteers! (19 April 2010)
    * Screening volunteers for attitude (14 April 2010)
    * Attracting Volunteers from the Business Community (13 April 2010)
    * A fire station turns away volunteers – and how it could be different (12 April 2010)
    * No complaints means success? (9 April 2010)
    * “hot” topics in volunteer management (8 April 2010)
    * Don’t let them equate volunteer management with HR management (6 April 2010)
    * emerging trends in volunteer management (5 April 2010)

    One disagreement with you: “do NOT use volunteers for grant-writing except in exceptional cases, e.g. an experienced grant-writer and/or foundation program officer is your volunteer. … their skills actually disqualify them from doing it well!” I’ve worked with many volunteers who have been excellent (and very successful) grant writers. I’ve had less success with volunteer grant *researchers* — this is a very specific skills that most people charge for.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      These are great insights, and your point is well-taken: if we “use” volunteers then we’re probably opening the door to have them merely “use” us right back. I absolutely think involving volunteers in the process of managing other volunteers is an essential component of a successful program.

  4. Chris Niccoli Says:

    This may sound stupid, but did you write is yourself or used some source? This gives me a good idea for my own post on my forum, thanks.

    • Nonprofiteer Says:

      Someone accused Abe Lincoln of being two-faced, and he replied, “If I had two faces, do you think I’d wear this one?” Likewise: if I’d copied these thoughts from someone else, don’t you think they’d be more polished and less tentative? In any case, these are my ideas–but please feel free to crib.

  5. Roundup for April 2010 « Nonprofit Blog Exchange Blog Says:

    […] Making the most of high-skill volunteers: initial thoughts (The Nonprofiteer) […]

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