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Dear Non-Profit Leaders – Volunteers Aren’t Free!

Photo by Two Paddles Axe and Leatherwork on Unsplash

Originally posted June 2017, but reformatted and updated for current times.

If you’re in a senior position at a non-profit, serve as a board or an advisory committee member or you’re the founder, listen up. I’m about to drop some knowledge on you. While my words will initially sting, know that this is intended to help you sidestep a landmine or two when planning future events, making staffing decisions, and even expanding the scope of your organization’s programming.

While many acknowledge the value of volunteers, the overriding behaviors in society say otherwise. Why? Because there are myths that exist about volunteers. Sadly, I’ve felt this in my career working in both the non-profit sector and in corporate social responsibility (CSR). I suspect I’m not alone. But I reckon only those who have directly engaged volunteers as their primary daily function truly understand. And while some will automatically be appalled at the mere existence of this post, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Why you ask? Simply because one of the most widely believe myths plaguing the non-profit sector is that volunteers come with no expenses or costs.

The issue I take is that there are too many leaders in the non-profit sector who fail to recognize this. These same leaders are operating their non-profits with the belief volunteers can be successfully engaged with rudimentary or no-cost solutions. Is that you? Or perhaps someone you know?

If so, know this. By ignoring the true costs associated with engaging volunteers, you may be undermining your efforts at every turn. But all hope is not lost, there’s still a chance to turn things around. I’ll tell you how and why.

Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

The associated expenses paid by volunteers act as barriers.

There’s a reason those who live in poverty don’t volunteer. While volunteers give their time without an expectation of a paycheck, there’s often a cost associated with their ability to do so. I’m not referring to fees paid directly to the non-profit. What I’m referring to are the little details many don’t account for. To understand what I’m referring to let’s take a trip down memory lane.

Think back to a time when you’ve volunteered for the average volunteer role. Perhaps this was recent and in the form of virtual volunteering, but I suspect this was likely last year in a pre COVID-19 environment. Regardless, I’m going to ask that you walk yourself through the steps you took to just give your time as a volunteer.

First, you likely conducted research based on your motivations. Once you found an organization and the volunteer opportunity you likely made contact. Once registered to volunteer, you likely received information about your role, a point of contact and location where you’d eventually serve. There’s a chance this may have required training or orientation. Either way, it’s unlikely you were within 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 a rideshare app fare. If you drove, that too is at your expense.

If volunteering at a conference center or hotel, you likely paid for parking. Or perhaps there was street parking. In that instance you may have paid several dollars to park on the street, or worse yet, the fee to park in a parking garage. In any major city, a parking garage may cost upwards of twenty dollars for all day parking. But even if the organization you’re serving provided a parking voucher, that organization likely incurred the cost against their budget. So, you finally park, get connected with that organization’s staff member and get put to work.

In some cases, a volunteer t-shirt or name tag is provided. Even if paid for in bulk, the hosting organization likely paid anywhere from five to twelve dollars for each t-shirt. If this volunteer role requires more than several hours, there’s a chance you may have had to buy lunch or dinner. If volunteering at a convention hall, 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.

I trust that by now you’re getting the picture.

The point I’m trying to illustrate is simple. Volunteers either come with a cost that’s out of that volunteer’s pocket or incurred by the hosting organization. In instances where volunteers incur all these costs, they’re essentially spending money to volunteer. If out of that volunteer’s pocket, it could act as a barrier standing between them and serving that non-profit. If a volunteer can’t afford the associated costs, it’ll present a barrier making volunteering inaccessible.

Inaccessible opportunities equal no volunteer.

There’s literally nothing about what I just described that’s free.

Do I still have your attention? Good. Here are some actions you can take to make a difference.

Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

When thinking about your event sites, be cognizant of where it’s hosted. The location of an event can significantly influence how successful your organization is when engaging volunteers for support. If the location is several hours from where your volunteer base is located, if it's inaccessible using public transportation or requires volunteers to pay astronomical fees for parking, you’re only adding barriers to your recruitment efforts. Avoid this by integrating your volunteer engagement staff into your event planning process. This is crucial especially for events that are volunteer heavy. Your volunteer engagement staff will provide insight on where volunteers reside, or if volunteers will face a strain on their budget based on the venue’s location.

And this goes without saying but, be aware of the date and time you choose for an event. If the event is scheduled for a date or time that’s competing against another popular event or on a holiday, you may inadvertently force volunteers to choose between your event or another that’s also capturing their attention. Worst yet, as a non-profit, you may be competing for the same volunteer resources against another organization. I see this all the time during events like MLK Day of Service, September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance and through the holidays. When competing, there's a chance that events with fewer expenses for volunteers will by default be more accessible.

Avoid this by asking more questions and doing research. Don’t assume volunteers will attend just 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 volunteer engagement staff, 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. And lastly on this point, think about forming a partnership and collaborating with other "would-be competitor" non-profits when hosting a “day of service” to avoid competing. This can help consolidate resources to maximize value and reduce costs.

If there are tremendous costs acting as barriers to your volunteers, conduct a cost analysis to understand all the related expenses and build the case. Then have an honest discussion with your major funders. Work with your development department and fundraising professionals to have these costs covered in future program grants. Major funders must understand that in order to host these events there are costs associated with engaging the very volunteers who staff and make the programs and events successful.

I’ll also mention this doesn’t even cover costs associated with providing the volunteers 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.

The volunteer engagement expert; an investment of a lifetime.

When you’re recruiting new hires as paid staff, you generally have human resources, or a recruiter find the qualified candidate. In many cases they also provide some orientation and basic organizational training for onboarding the new hire. Those same considerations must exist when recruiting volunteers.

Look, you can’t just expect that volunteers will show up based on an ad on the internet. That’s not how it works. There are many functions that must exist for the proper management of volunteers. To carry out these functions you must have skilled professionals. And you mustn’t cut corners on this one, it’ll show, and you’ll be disappointed. I’ve seen this a thousand times, non-profit organizations expect volunteers to manage themselves, or they enlist a volunteer to manage other volunteers. Or just as egregious, they hire some dope who’s not a true engagement professional because they believe anybody can do the job. The result? Their volunteer engagement becomes a noticeable fiasco. So, take my word for it, hire a true tested professional. Then pay them a similar wage to that of a fundraiser. Don’t ignore this warning, you’ll be doing so at your own peril. I promise you that, and I don’t make promises often.

After (and only after) you have the correct staff in place, task them with creating a strategy for volunteer engagement. If they’re knowledgeable then they’ll be able to give recommendations about outreach, rapport building, recruitment, training and orientation, placement of volunteers, acknowledgement and collecting impact.

And of course, after that you need the correct infrastructure and support which gets me to a final point. Investing in the proper support apparatus.

We won’t cover the tools needed in this post, just know that while this starts with dedicating professional to engaging volunteers it doesn’t end there.

You must make sure they have the tools they need.

Of course, there’s a cost to all these suggestions.

These suggestions cost something, either time or actual monetary expenses. Just remember by thinking through these barriers you’ll be doing yourself a favor. What’s the favor you ask? Well, by minimizing the out of pocket costs a volunteer pays you’ll remove barriers to their serving. And secondly, by hiring a true volunteer engagement professional you'll have a sturdy foundation for creating a volunteer engagement strategy. The end goal here is to have a deeper impact on the community you serve.

Also, if you’re unsure of what would ease costs for volunteers or remove some of these barriers, just ask. Think about conducting a town hall or brown bag meeting with volunteers 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.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Engage your program staff. Ask them for candid feedback.

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. In this environment as we battle COVID-19, they may not feel comfortable shifting to virtual volunteerism. This may be due to technological challenges with your current IT infrastructure, or perhaps there’s a gap in digital literacy that exists amongst your staff.

They may also tell you they simply don’t have the time because volunteer coordination is a secondary role for them. In this case engaging volunteers takes a back seat against their primary duties. To me this would indicate that you need additional resources in way of staffing.

Lastly, when it comes down to it, seek funding. Work with those who manage your fundraising efforts to gain the necessary revenue. Charge your development team to seek donors who understand these real costs. If they don’t understand these costs, then be bold and educate them. Don’t shy away from presenting this to them because you’re afraid of questions. By seeking funding for a volunteer management scheme you’ll set yourself up for greater success. You’ll have the monetary backing that pays for staff, IT infrastructure 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 serves as both a reminder and a call to action that volunteers aren’t free, and they often come at a price.

As with many things in life, you get what you pay for. Like a cheap tattoo, if you don’t make the proper investment, you’ll likely regret it. If you don’t know where to start, I have a suggestion. Drop me a note and we’ll start this journey together. But until next time, be well.

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