The C-MBS blog continues its focus on the essential Practices, Actions, Styles, Attitudes, Manners, Behaviors, and Attributes—collectively known as the PASAMBAs—relating to a key function of the Change-Making Board. In this post, we turn our attention to a vital aspect of the External-Ambassadorial facet of the Four Facets of Change-Making Boards: Volunteer Management.
For nonprofit boards especially, but public boards too, pulling in volunteers to work in support of your agency can be as important as raising money. While not everyone has the wherewithal to make a large monetary donation, almost anyone can be a volunteer. For some smaller organizations, the “staff” may actually be comprised entirely of volunteers! As we’ve seen during the pandemic across a wide range of activities and services, technology has also made it that much easier for individuals to help the causes they believe in. With volunteerism so prevalent throughout the nonprofit sector—and volunteer jobs becoming increasingly important and complex, even before Covid-19 hit—change-making boards realize the benefit of a carefully planned approach to the management of volunteers.
Like regular employees of your organization, volunteers have to be recruited, placed, developed, supervised, recognized, and retained. What most of us would regard as conventional human resource practices—such as having job descriptions, interviewing candidates, providing orientation, and assessing performance—take on even more importance for the volunteer corps from a liability standpoint. The point to understand is that volunteer engagement is a way more complex function than merely putting out a sign-up sheet in hopes that a few bored retirees or teenagers needing a service project donate an hour a week to complete some mundane task.
In fact, volunteers create additional work for paid staff, not less. If your board is thinking a volunteer program will allow it to lessen the workload of regular staff or decrease the number of paid employees—well, that ain’t gonna happen. Instead, staff who manage or work with volunteers usually have to allocate additional time for doing so. With volunteers, the scope of supervision expands more significantly than if the same number of paid workers joined the organization, since volunteers require special attention in most areas.
To wit: Scheduling is seldom easy. Most volunteers are part-time and receive greater latitude in scheduling changes if personal circumstances arise. Communication is less consistent, and volunteers can easily become detached from the agency’s internal information system. Specialized training or reporting may be required. The inability of existing staff to handle these extra issues only strains the volunteer’s sense of connection to the organization, contributing to the biggest problem by far hampering volunteer programs: turnover. And this leads to our first of two important PASAMBAs when engaging with volunteers.
Poorly run programs are inherently demotivating for volunteers: Considerable research about volunteerism has taken place over the years, looking at factors such as age, motivation, accessible discretionary time, and rewards, and the role each plays in prompting someone to become a volunteer and stick with it. Although the pool of volunteers is naturally deeper at certain life stages because of the free time available, and the intrinsic rewards from volunteering are known to be powerful motivators, there is one determinant that appears to rise above all others when it comes to a volunteer’s job satisfaction and commitment to an organization: the capability with which the program is run and how adequately it trains, sustains, and deals with its volunteers. Individuals who donate their most precious thing to your organization—time—are typically not looking for another plaque to put on the wall or simply a reason to get out of the house. Rather, they are people who want to do difference-making work for a cause they support, and an effective volunteer management system validates a respect for their efforts which generates even stronger levels of commitment to your mission.
Skills-based volunteerism is more motivating than drudge work: Yes, sometimes an organization needs volunteers to take on humdrum jobs like running copies, licking envelopes, and recycling boxes. Though necessary on occasion, such tasks are not what an enticing and vibrant volunteer program is made of. Except in rare instances, enough people have enough time to volunteer in ways that could be transformative for your organization, but they often don’t because the opportunities that exist aren’t challenging enough to take them away from other interesting things to do with their time. Individuals volunteer to feel purpose and gain responsibility, to stay engaged. Many seek to expand and practice their skills, sometimes in anticipation of future paid employment. Asking skilled volunteers to take on boring or meaningless assignments creates as much frustration as assigning them to jobs beyond their skill sets. Someone can always be found to run bake sales or fold letters when needed, but the change-making volunteer programs are those which tap into volunteers’ abilities and interests.
In the end, change-making trustees view volunteer programs as additive, not substitutive. Volunteers do not supplant the work of regular staffers and other paid employees—they supplement it.
Don’t forget that with these and other PASAMBAs leading to consequential and impactful governance, more information can always be found in my book, The Change-Making Board: Consequential Governance for Public & Nonprofit Organizations, available from all major online book retailers or at the “Book” link at the top of the homepage for this blog. In the post next time, we’ll explore PASAMBAs associated with new trustee orientation on our boards. Any comments or criticisms, plus ideas or requests for a future post, are always welcome and can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
R. J. Dunn