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Dear Non-profit Leadership - Volunteers Aren't Free!

There are myths that exist about volunteers. One widely believed myth is that volunteers are free. What I mean is that there are too many non-profit leaders that believe volunteers don’t come with any expenses or considerations that cost money. I’m here to tell you that’s incorrect. If you’re in a senior position at a non-profit, serve as a board member, are on an advisory committee or you’re a founder, please listen. By doing so, you may sidestep some landmines when planning events, making staffing decisions, and when expanding the scope of your operations.

Volunteers, while they give their time without an expectation of a paycheck, there’s often a cost associated with their ability to do so. Not to mention those that need attention that’ll impact your organization’s ability to effectively engage and manage these same volunteers. Think back to a time when you’ve volunteered. This may have been recently, or maybe this was years back. Regardless, I want you to walk yourself through the steps that you took for you to give your time.

First, you conducted researched based on your motivations. Once you found an organization and a volunteer opportunity that aligned with those motivations, you contacted them. Once registered to volunteer, you were provided information about your specific role, location, and point of contact. It’s not likely that you were in walking distance of this volunteer opportunity, so you probably drove or took public transportation. If you took public transportation then you had to pay bus, metro or an Uber fare. If you drove, the gas is at your expense, but you may have had to pay for parking if it’s not free to the public. You probably had to pay several dollars for street parking, or worse yet, the fee to park in a parking garage. In any major city, this could cost upwards of twenty dollars for all day parking. If the organization you’re serving provided a voucher, then they incurred the cost against their budget. So, you finally park, get connected with that organization’s staff member and get put to work. This position also came with a volunteer t-shirt and a name tag provided by the organization, which means that even if paid for in bulk, it cost maybe five to seven dollars for that organization per shirt. If this staffing role requires more than several hours, you may have had to buy lunch or dinner. If volunteering at a convention or event, you’re likely to pay at least ten dollars unless you brought your own food. If the organization you’re serving provided food, understand that this too is coming from their budget… Are you finally getting the picture?

The point I’m trying to illustrate is simply that volunteers either come with a cost that’s incurred by the organization, or out of the volunteer’s pocket. If out of that volunteer’s pocket, it could act as a barrier standing between them and serving your organization. If a volunteer can’t afford any of the costs, they’re not volunteering because it’s no longer accessible for them. Think of it in terms like this. In instances where the volunteer is incurring all these costs, you’re essentially making them spend money to volunteer. This doesn’t cover costs associated with providing them training, or the necessary support structure like staff, who facilitate providing orientation, training, supervision, and acknowledgement and all the communication before and after the event. There’s literally nothing about what I just described that’s free.

Now that I have your attention, I urge you to do the following;

  • Be cognizant of where you host events: The location of your event can have a huge impact on how successful you are when seeking volunteer support. If the location is several hours from your base of volunteer support, isn’t accessible using public transportation or requires volunteers to pay astronomical fees (like at a hotel or popular tourist attraction), you add barriers to your recruitment efforts. Avoid this by integrating your volunteer administrator or those who engage volunteers into the planning process. They’ll provide insight on where volunteers reside, or if volunteers will face a strain on their budget based on venue of opportunity.

  • Be aware of the date and time you choose for an event: If the event is on a date or time that’s competing against another popular event or on a holiday, you may force volunteers to choose between your event and another that’s capturing their attention. Worst yet, you may be competing for the same volunteer resources against another organization. Avoid this by asking more questions and doing research. Don’t assume that volunteers will come out because “their heart’s in it.” While they may be emotionally connected, it could be beyond their means to give. If you’re unsure of how long it’ll take to muster up support, ask your staff who engage volunteers, they’ll know because they deal in this reality on a day to day basis. You’ll want to allow enough time between setting the date of an event, and when you begin recruiting volunteers

  • Invest in volunteer engagement: You can’t just expect that volunteers will show up based on an ad on the internet. There are many functions that must exist for the proper management of volunteers. Just like recruiting new staff, you need human resources or a recruiter to find the qualified and appropriate staff, orient and train them, place them into a role, provide ongoing supervision, acknowledge them for their good work, and collect their feedback if something’s wrong. The same considerations need to exist for volunteers. Invest in the proper support apparatus. This starts by dedicating staff to engaging volunteer and making sure they have the tools they need.

These suggestions cost something, either time or actual monetary expenses. Regardless, by thinking through some of these, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by minimizing the out of pocket costs a volunteer pays just so they can give you their time. If you’re unsure of what would ease the costs on volunteers or remove some of these barriers, just ask. Work with your staff to have a volunteer town hall or brown bag meeting, where you genuinely listen to the feedback from those who serve. If a volunteer tells you that for them to give their time at an event, it costs them an arm and a leg, then maybe it’s time to strategize ways to fix this. However, this starts with asking questions.

But don’t stop with the volunteers. Ask your staff what barriers they experience when seeking volunteer support. They may surprise you by saying that they don’t have funding for a volunteer management database, or the proper IT equipment to facilitate communication. They may also tell you that they simply don’t have the time because volunteer coordination is a secondary role, that takes back burner on their primary duties, which would indicate that you need additional resources in way of staffing. Lastly, when it comes down to it, seek funding. Work with your development and fundraising staff to seek donors who understand these real costs. If they don’t understand these costs, educate them. By seeking funding for a volunteer management scheme, you set yourself up for success because you’ll have the monetary backing that pays for staff, IT equipment to facilitate communication, possibly a database to track and schedule volunteers, and an ability to acknowledge your volunteers with letters, awards and other ways to say “thanks.”

This is just scratching the surface on what can be done to support volunteers. I hope this plea serves as a wakeup call or reminder that volunteers aren’t free, and they often come at a price. Just like many things in life, you get what you pay for. Like a cheap tattoo, you’ll likely regret it.

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