“Why don’t you just find some volunteers to help you out?”
This is one of the most common suggestions that a nonprofit will receive in its lifetime. “Volunteer potion” (as I like to call it) makes an entrance in conversation almost as much as the party line, “Aw, you work for a nonprofit, GOOD FOR YOU!”
Having volunteers to support your organization’s programs and events can be a wonderful thing for both companies and volunteers alike. Volunteerism gives many people an organized way to give back to their communities, to meet new people and to simply feel good about themselves. From the NPO’s perspective, volunteers can be a great help in times of need. They can add some fresh fare to your team and they can even attract promising candidates for that job opening you’re bound to have.
Though there are many advantages to volunteerism, it is not the one-size-fits-all solution to the plight of the modern nonprofit. Often in our rush to solve the continual resource challenge of our existence in the most cost-efficient way possible, we forget that volunteer programs are not actually free. True, volunteer labor is free, but you should also be considering the labor and materials costs involved in volunteer recruitment, training, scheduling, oversight and appreciation. If you don’t, you could find yourself paying the consequences in the form of quality control issues, dissatisfaction amongst the demographic you serve or disgruntled volunteers inclined to drop a less-than-flattering review on your VolunteerMatch profile.
With all of these potential risks and rewards to consider, how do you know if volunteerism is right for your company? Here are a few simple questions I recommend asking yourself before you seriously pursue a volunteer model:
1. What will volunteers be doing?
The type of duties that your volunteers will be performing can greatly influence the time that you devote to recruitment and training. The more specialized the skillset, the longer it can take to find the right volunteer and/or the smaller the pool of candidates. Many people have the ability to register participants at a cause-oriented walk, but fewer will be able to teach a Photoshop class to teens.
2. WITH WHOM ARE YOUR VOLUNTEERS IN DIRECT CONTACT?
If volunteers are going to be continuously working directly with the demographic that your nonprofit services, you will probably want your recruitment process to be more extensive. You may want to consider the use of an application, interviews, reference checks, and perhaps even background checks. Do remember though, the more complex your recruitment process, the more time it will require. Which brings me to…
3. How much time can you commit to volunteers?
This is an extremely important consideration because, unlike your volunteers, you are actually being paid. If you need 40 working hours to recruit and train volunteers for a 2-hour event, then volunteers may not be your best option. You might be better off putting a call out to your Facebook page for help, or asking staff and interns to put out feelers through their own social networks.
4. how much time does training require?
It can be very effective to organize one catch-all volunteer orientation and training that is appropriate in both subject matter and geography for all volunteer positions; however, if your volunteers live in distant cities and will have vastly different responsibilities, small group or one-on-one orientations might be more appropriate. While arguably better from a relationships standpoint, these are not the most time-efficient options. You have to ask yourself: is my time investment up front worth the anticipated benefit of this volunteer?
5. Are your needs ongoing or one-off?
If you are looking for volunteers for a one-time event, you may not need to vet them as closely as you might for a longer-term commitment. For longer-term volunteer posts, you want to make sure you find a great fit for your organization, someone who can represent you and your company well over time, to many different people and under potentially changing circumstances. Again, this recruitment process can take more of your time.
6. Can you provide direct oversight?
I think that some level of direct oversight is key to enduring volunteer programs and positions. Since volunteers aren’t being paid, it’s important to acknowledge their work, and the best kind of acknowledgement—better than words of encouragement via email or phone—comes from your presence. If your ability to interact with volunteers during their shifts is limited, you may put yourself at risk of a higher turnover.
7. CAN YOU show appreciation?
Acts of appreciation may very well be the #1 reason why volunteers decide to continue with a particular organization week after week, month after month, and perhaps even year after year. Your appreciation doesn’t need to be fancy—a heartfelt card will do in some cases—but it should be included in your program vision. Make sure you are in a position to reward a job well done before you begin recruitment.
8. are you thinking long-term?
Last, but certainly not least, it’s important for you to take a moment to forecast your ability to sustain a strong volunteer program over time. Volunteers can get very attached to the populations with whom they work with and vice versa. It’s also a lot of time and effort on your part to develop a volunteer program in the first place. Do justice to yourself, your potential volunteers and the population(s) you work with by approaching your program-in-the-making as a longer-term commitment, not just a fair weather fancy.
There are certainly many other factors and nuances that an organization should consider before contemplating the creation of a volunteer program, but these are some helpful starter questions to get the newbie started. Beneath it all, this list attempts to remind us that volunteerism is a two-way street. Not only are volunteers providing a service to your organization, but your organization is also providing a service to volunteers. Whether your volunteer positions offer a sense of life purpose or valuable means to jumpstart or transition a career, it is important for organizations to honor the mutually beneficial nature of this relationship by giving a volunteer framework adequate consideration before launch.