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Trying to Volunteer

This guest blog post was written by George Schofield. You can reach him at george.schofield@clarity-group.com.

I am an experienced volunteer.  

Many of my weekends have been spent sitting at a folding table to check in guests for a fundraising event, punctuated by periodically moving around to distribute appreciation and support to participants.    

I have regularly collected trash and cleaned up after nonprofit fundraising events.  I have served on boards. I’ve seen a lot.

As a volunteer leader, I was simultaneously the Chairman of an Advisory Council to an important City/County Social Services Commission and the President of the Association of the 30+ sister Advisory Councils throughout the state in which I then lived.

My enjoyment and continued participation in meaningful volunteerism have been dependent on the ability of the Executive Director or other insightful leader to spend the time to do three things:

1.         Know what they needed (from minimally skilled day labor to expert board leadership).

2.         Understand what I could do well in that situation.

3.         Deploy me in ways which set the organization/event/me for probable in-the-moment success – whether it was from day labor or expert work – and accompanying satisfaction.  

Of course, I need to make sure my ego or need for validation do not get tangled up in any given assignment. 

I recently asked a senior professional in the field to refer me to charitable organizations for volunteer consideration – calling first to describe me and what I had to offer. This would open the door so my reaching out wouldn’t be a cold call.   

Duly meeting separately with three very different executive directors, we had interesting and energetic conversations, discussed their various volunteer needs, and talked about my experiences and background.  

Each one cited specific needs, places I could help.  I was sincerely seeking ways, large or small, to help.  We departed with positive ideas.   I attended their subsequent events to learn and see their organizations in action.   I never heard from any of them again except for requests for donations from two.

What happened?  

My heart and sympathy belong to so many nonprofit executive directors.   Their jobs can be so much more difficult than for-profit CEOs, although for profit usually gets the glory. 

For profit CEOs have historically worked from control.  On the other hand, nonprofit leaders historically work primarily from influence (without control) with donors, colleagues, board members, volunteers, service recipients, vendors, staff members, professional advisors, competitors for donor dollars, regional or national organizations to which they are affiliated.  

If you are reading this piece, you probably know that they also tend to be overbooked and underpaid themselves, sometimes suffering from our embedded cultural assumption that nonprofit leaders and staff will and should settle for lower compensation.

From the perspective of volunteer management, I have noticed that the work is usually event and task -driven. Volunteer Management does not often include giving a seat or a voice at the senior/strategic leadership and thinking tables of nonprofit planning and execution.  

Well handled, volunteers turn into loyalty and recruitment machines. 

They can be strategic, even if temporary, assets.  They become donors.  They become the vessels of historic event knowledge and success.  They become board members.   They become ambassadors to the larger community.  Of course they can occasionally turn into a total pain when they forget they aren’t indeed the paid leadership or staff, but that’s a risk.

I think our notions of volunteering deserve a rethink and enough sophistication and funding to make selection, performance, retention, and ultimate contributions of volunteers an organizational priority—especially in our community. 

Volunteers often rely on who they already know and who respects them. Given the expertise, financial capacity, education, and available time of so many fine people in our area, it’s time for more strategic volunteer management help nonprofits better partner with those who can deploy talent and experience. This includes adequately funding staffing dollars and levels to free up leadership to do this important work.  

At the same time, as a volunteer, I have the responsibility to be specifically clear about my skills and interests, not leaving it exclusively up to the Executive Director to draw lines between me and their volunteer needs.

I am looking forward to what we can accomplish together.