A missed opportunity with volunteers

A colleague recently told me that she and a group of co-workers arranged to go to a nonprofit thrift store for one day and help the organization sort through computer donations. She and her colleagues had a great time:

“It was super fun!”, she said. “I got to sort through equipment, to tear apart computers, to take a hammer to outdated computers. We had a great time!” But she added, “No one ever asked me for my name. They didn’t have a sign in sheet. They didn’t capture any of my information. And I have no idea what all this work that I did means to them.”

I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Again.

These volunteers merely got work done. This nonprofit merely got free labor. Nothing more.

Here was a great opportunity for this nonprofit organization to make connections that could lead to more volunteering, more volunteers, more awareness of its work and new financial donations! Here was an opportunity for these volunteers to learn about all that this nonprofit does, that it’s not just a thrift store but, in fact, a job training organization. A rich, longer-term, meaningful relationship could have been created.

Instead, the nonprofit just got some work done, and the volunteers had fun for a day. There is more to volunteer engagement than that – even for onsite episodic or microvolunteering volunteering like this, with just a few hours of work no requirement for future commitment.

I have no idea what all this work that I did means to them.

That comment in particular is the one that hurts me to the core as a volunteer management advocate.

Here’s what should have happened:

  • There should have been a sign in sheet for the volunteers. The names, postal mailing addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of every participant should have been captured. This isn’t just to create a way to followup with volunteers later for further volunteering or fundraising; it’s to mitigate risk, to have a recourse in case volunteers damage property, hurt someone, or engage in inappropriate activity. It also says to volunteers, “You are more than just bodies doing work to us. You are people. We recognize that.”
  • Someone from the organization should have taken photos of volunteers in action, and asked for a group photo as well. The photos should have been posted to Flickr with recognition of the volunteers, either by their names or by the company they were representing. Some of the photos should have ended up on the organization’s web site as well. Photos could have been tweeted during the work as it was happening. Posting photos is a great, easy, cheap way to thank volunteers, to entice others to volunteer, and to say to everyone, “We are a nonprofit that is doing things!.”
  • Someone from the organization should have emailed each of the volunteers the day after the event, thanking each person for his or her service, noting why the service was of value to the organization, and telling the person how he or she could volunteer again in the future. The email should also have invited each person to subscribe to an email newsletter or follow the organization on Twitter or “like” the organization on Facebook – something that would allow the person to stay connected to the organization, know about new volunteering opportunities, etc. The email should have also invited each volunteer to opt-in to receiving postal mail from the organization.
  • Local TV stations should have gotten an email or fax from the nonprofit an hour before volunteers arrived, saying, “Hey, here’s a great video opportunity for you…” TV stations are often scrambling for video the the evening news cast. Someone taking a hammer to a computer would have ended up on a local news station for sure!

That’s volunteer engagement / community engagement 101. That’s not extra work – that’s what any organization should already be doing with volunteers that are going to show up for just an hour, or just half a day, or just one day. If an organization can’t do that, should they be involving volunteers at all? I don’t think so.

Also see

How to Get Rid of Volunteers – My own volunteering horror story. One of the most popular blogs I’ve ever published.

Creating One-Time, Short-Term Group Volunteering Activities
Details on not just what groups of volunteers can do in a two-hour, half-day or all-day event, but also just how much an organization or program will need to do to prepare a site for group volunteering.

Keeping Volunteer Information Up-to-Date
Suggestions on how to keep volunteer information up-to-date, with the goal of getting the information your organization needs with minimal effort on your part.

Required Volunteer Information on Your Web Site
If your organization or department involves volunteers, or wants to, there are certain things your organization or department must have on its web site – no excuses! To not have this information says that your organization or department takes volunteers for granted, does not value volunteers beyond money saved in salaries, or is not really ready to involve volunteers.

Mission statements for your volunteer engagement
(Saying WHY your organization or department involves volunteers!)
In addition to carefully crafting the way you talk about the value of volunteers, your organization should also consider creating a mission statement for your organization’s volunteer engagement, to guide employees in how they think about volunteers, to guide current volunteers in thinking about their role and value at the organization, and to show potential volunteers the kind of culture they can expect at your organization regarding volunteers.


One thought on “A missed opportunity with volunteers

  1. DJ Cronin

    Good piece Jayne. I do hope the organisations reads this. Thanks for plugging away and being at the forefront poiniting out these regretable situations.


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