Volunteers Must Not Be Treated Like Professional Staff … NOT!!!

Recently a nonprofit colleague commented on a volunteer who was not delivering on their commitment.  Time was being spent dealing with the volunteer’s poor performance, or lack thereof, resulting in lost production.  This situation is very common in the nonprofit world. However, the case is not that unproductive volunteers are wasting valuable nonprofit resources. Rather valuable volunteer resources are being wasted by nonprofits!

The nonprofit sector owes a tremendous credit to volunteer contribution. Indeed, most nonprofits are started due to the driving spirit and effort of volunteers. Many nonprofits still depend heavily on volunteers to deliver and achieve their goals. A recent dollar value of volunteer’s contributed services in the nonprofit sector was estimated at over $193 billion! A significant amount.

Volunteer contribution is a double-edged sword. Without diminishing the important role of volunteers a nonprofit eventually must professionalize if it wants to increase impact. By needing to professionalize I mean growing nonprofits require full-time experienced staff to direct operations. I also mean nonprofits need to view and manage volunteers professionally. The bar must be raised on what is expected from volunteers and on the management of volunteers. This includes respecting and treating volunteers with the same intention as the organization cares for professional staff. 

Unfortunately all to often in the quest, or shall I say panic, to recruit volunteers nonprofits are not fully upfront regarding the contribution needed. What perspective guides this behavior?  Typically there exists the attitude that since the volunteer is freely donating and not being paid for their time or talents their commitment is more fragile than that of professional staff. Thus the nonprofit soft sells the actual commitment required due to the fear that revealing too much would overwhelm the prospective, non-paid volunteer.

Some nonprofits recruit volunteers like AmWay in years past recruited prospects. AmWay’s strategy was to invite prospects to a home gathering with friends and not reveal the real purpose of the meeting. The real purpose of the meeting was to recruit the invitee to be an AmWay distributor.  Similarly, fearing a “no” answer to the ask, nonprofits often resort to a watered-down recruitment strategy. Indeed, there is often an apology in the nonprofit’s volunteer ask.  The essence of this ask is kind of  like, “We need your help but if you say yes we won’t require too much of you since you are ‘just a volunteer’.”  This perception of volunteers diminishes their role and contribution. Nonprofits that recruit volunteers with this attitude subtlety and sadly lower their expectations of the volunteer’s contributions. The result is lost production, misspent resources, and mission compromise.

What is required is a change in the recruitment, training, and management of volunteers. A few changes include:

  • Full Disclosure – A prospective volunteer should be told all that is required and  expected to fill a position. This includes full disclosure regarding a volunteer’s time commitment since this is the core opportunity cost metric by which most volunteers value their commitment.
  • Clarity – Volunteers should be recruited to fill “job” positions with specific expectations and requirements. Calling these roles jobs clarifies their contribution.
  • Compensation – Volunteers should be compensated just like professional staff. The only difference is the medium and type of exchange. Volunteer’s return are the affirmation of the values which directed each to offer their time and talents. A key is making sure there is a direct link between the job task, the mission, and their values. Helping the volunteer to see how his or her work is making a difference is the minimal payback expected for their contribution.
  • Planning – Boards and staff must not outpace their resources in their program planning.  All too often program plans do not budget the amount of volunteer staff jobs needed, including the resources required by professional staff in managing volunteer staff.
  • Performance Improvement – Like professional staff, volunteers can be given performance evaluations. As noted above, volunteers must be recruited with their specific talents in mind to fill a job position which helps achieve the mission of the nonprofit. If their participation is not specific how can their contribution be valued, measured, and connected to their mission and values? Adding an annual performance appraisal to a volunteer’s specific commitment will help create and maintain a common focus to their effort. It will also provide valuable feedback to the nonprofit staff and board regarding their work.

When nonprofits respect volunteers by treating them as valuable assets, like professional staff, production will become more effective and additional resources will be developed.


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