I’m a volunteer & you should just be GRATEFUL I’m here!

On a LinkedIn group, someone asked for a resource to help with volunteer evaluations (forms, policies, etc.). A couple of folks, myself included, responded with some references/resources.

And then came these two comments:

    (1)
    Volunteers generally do not expect to be evaluated, after all, they are doing the organization a favor.

    (2)
    As someone who has volunteered in over 30 organizations in a large array of positions, some with intense responsibility, if I had to be vetted each time I volunteered, I would never do any of it. In fact, if I had been appraised, they probably would have disqualified me in the first place when in actuality, I did better than some of their paid and “experienced” staff. It is not worth my time to go through that nonsense, I am a volunteer for goodness sakes. Whenever someone imposes requirements, I just walk away. I have sat on advisory boards of non-profit organizations, as well, and have been entrusted with finances, operations, etc., if they had said you will have to go through some job interview hoops, I would have just laughed and also kept my wallet closed to any further contributions.

Volunteer managers have been working to raise the standards of volunteer involvement schemes for a few decades now, often with success. Yet, there are still oh-so-many entitlement volunteers, those folks who think organizations should take ANY volunteer and whatever that volunteer offers, and simply be grateful for what they get. No standards, no quality control, no performance measurements when it comes to volunteers. To demand quality from volunteers is insulting.

For me, as a volunteer management practitioner and someone who is committed to the success of nonprofit organizations and NGOs, I’m only to happy to show those people the door. I don’t need nor want their services as a volunteer. My organization — and those it serves — deserve better.

Nonprofit organizations are businesses. They aren’t there to be nice, they are there because they are necessary. A nonprofit has a mission — to house stray animals and reduce pet over-population, to present quality, professional theater performances, to educate people about HIV/AIDS, to provide care for victims of domestic violence, to keep a local environment clean, to help family farms survive even the worst economic times, to keep a state park clean and vibrant and accessible, and on and on. For a nonprofit, that mission trumps everything else — including the egos of entitlement volunteers. Nonprofit organizations have very limited resources to meet their mission, and they cannot waste those resources waiting and hoping entitlement volunteers maybe possibly might spare some time this week to staff the information booth at the local fair or come to the board meeting or counsel clients or attend a training or coach a youth soccer team or lead a childcare class or raise the money they have committed to raise or follow the rules.

Let’s say it again: volunteers are not free. An organization has to expend a lot of time and resources to involve volunteers. Organizations have to provide at least one staff member to supervise volunteer work and ensure volunteers don’t do any harm. Staff has to develop activities for volunteers to do — activities that often would be probably be cheaper and done more quickly by staff themselves. The organization has to monitor the volunteers and record their progress to the board and donors. And they must make sure the work volunteers undertake is of the quality and type the organization’s clients deserve.

Therefore, organizations want the people who volunteer to be worth all that investment of time and money. They want volunteers to take their commitment seriously, finish what they’ve started, and continue to support the organization, as volunteers and, maybe, as donors. They don’t want volunteers who aren’t going to show up, who do substandard work, who won’t be on time, who won’t follow policies and procedures, and who will reduce the trust and respect clients, donors and partner organizations have for the organization — those volunteers not only aren’t worth the effort, they aren’t worth the damage they may do.

When I am in charge of recruiting and screening volunteers, I have raised the bar high for applications – and the higher I have raised the bar for new volunteers, the more strict I’ve been regarding standards, the more hoops I’ve required volunteers to jump through with regard to reporting and work quality:

  • the less volunteer recruiting I have to do
  • the fewer conflicts among and with volunteers I’ve had to deal with
  • the fewer volunteers that drop out mid-assignment
  • the fewer volunteers I’ve had to let go (in fact, I’ve had to fire a volunteer just once)
  • the higher the quality of the volunteers contributions
  • the happier volunteers have been (based on their comments and how long they volunteer)
  • the less time I spend trying to put together reports showing volunteer effectiveness (because they provide the information automatically; I always have the information on hand, ready when needed)
  • the less time I have to spend trying to restore the faith of clients, staff and the general public in the work of the organization, and in volunteers in general, because of volunteer missteps

Nonprofit staff should never be afraid to say no to an offer of volunteer services. They should remember that their organizations and those they serve deserve the very best when it comes to services, including services provided by volunteers. And there are plenty of people out there ready to jump through your hoops and commit to quality volunteer service — and have their own service evaluated.

A version of this blog appeared 11 August 2010

Also see:

Corporate Volunteer Programs: What Do Nonprofits Want From Them?

In defense of skills over passion

No more warm, fuzzy language to talk about volunteers!

15 thoughts on “I’m a volunteer & you should just be GRATEFUL I’m here!

  1. ronda

    This is wonderful. I’ve been working on new welcome material for my organization’s prospective volunteers. This will help. I’m interested in your story about having to fire a volunteer. Have you written about that?

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Great question! I’ve "fired" just two or three volunteers in my entire 15+ years life as a volunteer manager – and in all three cases, we mutually agreed it was time for the volunteer to move on. It actually wasn’t that hard: in each case, I had communicated to the volunteer that there were problems, I laid out how those problems had to be addressed, I offered my support to help, etc. – so it was never a surprise to the volunteer when we had to have that this-isn’t-working-out meeting. I’ve had volunteers quit, but it’s almost always been at the end of a project, or at the end of their term as volunteer web master, volunteer online moderator, etc. – I always, always, always give end dates for every volunteer assignment – none are ever ongoing indefinitely. Volunteers either move on at that end date or sign up for another six months. What’s been harder is turning potential volunteers down, and explaining to those I’m turning down why. I’ve turned down volunteers for:– refusing to agree to the terms of volunteering. I’ve had two volunteers say that they cannot agree that their work as a volunteer becomes the property of the organization. — refusing to go through the online volunteer orientation (which takes 20 minutes, tops). I’ve had a few folks say they don’t have time to do it (to which I reply, if you don’t have time to go through this orientation, you don’t have time to volunteer with us. Best of luck to you). — refusing to agree to getting assignments done on time. Yes, you read that right – a couple of folks, who have read the orientation, have said, "I don’t *do* deadlines. I can probably make them, but I feel pressured that you set deadlines – volunteering shouldn’t be that strict." And I thank them for their interest, tell them volunteering with us probably isn’t a good match, and wish them well.

    Reply
  3. ronda

    Great stuff. Setting limits and communicating expectations are lessons I’ve learned from experience. It also took me awhile to figure out that end dates are a must. Looking back I realize that most instances when volunteers did not work out were due to an error in or lack of management. It’s funny, even when I did finally get the communicating expectations part right, there were times when the result of a volunteer’s time with us was completely different than what we set out to accomplish. About a year ago someone responded to a volunteer post for holiday media work. Once she got into the project and spent more time at our location she became very interested in a life skills /job placement program we offer. She finished the holiday project, but her best work ended up to be starting a blog which highlighted personal stories from people who were benefiting from classes. I bet that when she looks back on her time here she won’t even remember that she signed up for something else. There have been a few times when a volunteer’s work has gone down an unforeseen path. Most of the time, when managed closely, it’s been a good thing. Not every time. I’ve met so many amazing people. I still have a lot to learn. Thanks for responding to my comments.

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  4. Anonymous

    "I bet that when she looks back on her time here she won’t even remember that she signed up for something else." Ronda, you are singing my song! Exactly – those "short-term" volunteers just keep coming back and back, if they have a satisfying experience, and become long-term volunteers – something they might never have done if they had seen such a huge commitment before them. You sound like you are doing so much right! If you ever want to write a guest blog, give me a shout!

    Reply
  5. Gi

    After going throiugh your website it would be better to have lower paid gigs or more staff for all organizations (profit or non-profit). Great information as it proves why volunteering be redefined or almost completely abolished as a practice. There should be no more mandatory volunteering from schools in order to graduate, no more advertising of volunteer "opportunities" when really companies want "free lablor" from skilled people. You are right in the long run it will cost the organization much more to get as many volunteers as possible to boast company reputation. It is better to offer actual jobs or a paid internship with a volunteer component attached to it. Clients would probably respect that much more then having a bunch of volunteers who are not supported or are just there because of certain conditions. All organizations should rethink even having volunteers. Many mislead and scam people into thinking that they are important, have a say in the company, allowed to make suggestions, allowed to take on other positions when really like all businesses they want people to slave with unquestionable loyalty to fatten the wallets of high ups and boost their reputations. Orientations to any company is very much needed even just for volunteering (20 min online is nothing), more interviews should be online or on the phone, deadlines are normal (with some flexibility depending on what it is), anything one does with someone’s equipment can become the company’s intellectual property. Thanks for also shedding the light like other volunteer managers out there who actually was honest enough to simply say a business is a business and nothing more. Less to absolutely no volunteering work, yes to donations, jobs, employment programs, and paid internships.

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  6. Anonymous

    Wow, Gi, if my blogs have turned you off of involving volunteers at all, that’s super bad news. I’m passionate about involving volunteers. In fact, I don’t trust nonprofits that don’t involve volunteers – people who are unpaid and have no financial ties to an organization and, therefore, may be empowered to speak more freely, to suggest and criticize more freely, than paid staff members who need to protect their jobs. If an organization doesn’t involve volunteers, I wonder what that organization is hiding, I wonder just how much that organization *really* wants the community to know how it works, I wonder about the organization’s transparency regarding decision-making and financial practices, and on and on. Many people want to work with volunteers, not paid staff. There are women in domestic violence shelters, or children going through courts, who want at least one volunteer interacting with them, someone they know is there because they WANT to be, not because it’s something they are paid to do. That’s not to say paid staff aren’t dedicated, caring, and doing their work for reasons that have nothing to do with money – but there are many clients who want some volunteer contact, nonetheless. A 20 minute orientation isn’t right for, say, a volunteer for Big Brothers Big Sisters, or someone who is going to volunteer at an animal shelter, or a board member, but it’s all that’s needed for a Habitat for Humanity one-day volunteer, or a beach clean up volunteer, or someone that’s going to do an online volunteering assignment that’s just a one-off task with no further commitment – like translating a document, or identifying Twitter feeds that relate to an organization’s mission, or tagging photos on Flickr. So let me be clear: I’m pro-volunteer. Nonprofits need MORE volunteer involvement, not less. But we also need to be clear that involving volunteers costs money – volunteers are not "Free."

    Reply
  7. Gi

    I forgot to mention than in addition to going through your website. Sorry for the misunderstanding if any. Oh I already know that having any type of staff does have operating costs but it seems many organizations do give the impression and have expressed that volunteer ="free labor" as opposed to paying someone to do the same job and of lesser value. It’s obvious that you and other bloggers with similar viewpoints are definitely pro-volunteer. When someone complained about 20 min orientation I thought it isn’t really that much time as most that I heard about and have attended were half to a full day or even just a bit more. Yes you are right that different organizations have their own requirements with respect to online or in-person orientations plus standards and expectations. Also many companies stress the fact that volunteering is a way to gain experience, to meet new people (socialize), possibly get a job in the organization if you become a staff favorite, a way to fulfill graduation requirements. It’s almost as bad as promotions from educational institutions to invest in them.Maybe there are other organizations besides smaller community groups that are strictly volunteer run with no paid staff. Good point about clients who prefer volunteers over staff members for certain services.Really appreciate your recent reply.

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  8. Jane

    Then what ? -What you have not addressed is when a volunteer actually meets the guidelines ,provides the commitment over many years and takes their contribution very seriously – there is a requirement for the non profit and the government to recognise the contribution and also say thank you just sometimes and be courteous and not patronising

    Reply
    1. jcravens Post author

      No, I didn’t not address thank you’s, because that’s not what the blog was about. It was, instead, about two comments on LinkedIn that are from “entitlement volunteers.” I address how to thank volunteers in many other blogs and on my web site. So, in fact, it’s something I address frequently – just not in this particular blog.

      Reply
  9. Leslie Howard

    What do you advise on this issue when the problem is the volunteer manager’s lack of ability, or when the org is in need of upgrading capacity and the volunteers are the victims of that process?

    Reply
  10. jcravens Post author

    “when the problem is the volunteer manager’s lack of ability, or when the org is in need of upgrading capacity and the volunteers are the victims of that process?”

    If you are asking as a volunteer, then find another organization to volunteer with. You can certainly write a letter to the board and executive director, detailing the issues you have had in trying to volunteer – write facts, like “And when I showed up at the work site, there was no guidance on what I was supposed to do, in contrast to what the manager of volunteers told me”, not opinions, like “the manager of volunteers is in need of upgrading her skills.” But it’s up to senior management to address issues. Vote with your feet and go elsewhere. Some volunteers have become so frustrated that they’ve started their own organizations, and that’s fine too – though it’s easier said than done.

    If you asking as an executive director, then you need to sit down with your manager of volunteers, with a detailed list of issues, and talk about how these could be addressed. More training for the manager of volunteers? More paid staff to support the manager? Or is this a performance issue? Work together on solving the issue, but be aware that if the organization has let this go on for more than a year, it will be very difficult to ultimately dismiss the manager for lack of meeting performance goals, if her performance has never been called into question in the years before.

    Really, this is off-scope of the subject of this particular blog post. I’ve considered writing a blog on this particular subject… maybe I will….

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    1. Leslie Howard

      That would be a helpful post to read.

      I have observed the “lack of expertise” issue surfacing when the volunteer manager is in charge of directing projects that have special knowledge bases as a requirement for success (and the volunteer has that background) but the manager does not. Screening processes aren’t effective, or helpful, if the volunteer manager doesn’t know the subject/project matter sufficiently to understand what to screen or interview for. This can be especially pernicious in small organizations where managers wear several hats but are really only qualified to wear one or two very well, or when the need appears so dire that someone on the board says the equivalent of “anyone will do”–just get something going”.

      Your point that nonprofits are businesses is well taken. Unfortunately, a number of nonprofits don’t really function in a professional fashion–staff members feel so pressed for time or are so sadly ill-informed about the project matter that they onboard volunteers in a less than thoughtful way, and over time we who volunteer may have become used to this informality that is all too common. Some volunteer managers don’t have great conflict resolution skills, either, and don’t speak up early to keep small things small. Volunteers are not always formally evaluated, or told that they will be evaluated when they start.

      I haven’t met many “entitlement” volunteers myself, and am sad for orgs that apparently encounter them. But maybe sometimes volunteer management behaviors have helped to create them?

      Reply
  11. jcravens Post author

    ” I haven’t met many ‘entitlement’ volunteers myself…”

    Oh my goodness… I’ll never forget my first one. I’m sorry to say that most I’ve encountered have been from the corporate sector, but not all.

    “But maybe sometimes volunteer management behaviors have helped to create them?”

    Not in the scenario I’m talking about in my original blog – you might want to re-read it.

    “I have observed the ‘lack of expertise’ issue surfacing when the volunteer manager is in charge of directing projects that have special knowledge bases as a requirement for success (and the volunteer has that background) but the manager does not.”

    That’s not at all limited to people that manage volunteers; I’ve encountered it with staff members, at FOR profit companies, not just nonprofits, charged with supervising web development staff, having no idea themselves how the Internet works. Or staff members charged with supervising staff that interact with the public, having never staffed a phone or a front desk themselves. Or HR managers charged with screening initial candidates for a job that requires an expertise in an area they don’t really understand themselves.

    When they need to hire someone (paid position) with a very particular area of expertise, nonprofits often put together a hiring committee of volunteers that represent an area of expertise, to advise on how to recruit, to look through resumes to pick those to be interviewed, and advising on the final hire. This is something that could certainly be done when looking for particularly-skilled volunteers as well.

    “Volunteers are not always formally evaluated, or told that they will be evaluated when they start.” And many volunteers quit upon learning they will be evaluated! I’ve heard from oh-so-many managers of volunteers that have tried to formalize a volunteer engagement scheme, and the pushback from long-term volunteers – and the “entitlement” volunteers – that the organization would *dare* evaluate the work done by volunteers is seen as outrageous! It’s a very delicate subject to introduce at many nonprofits – and most senior staff, and funders, don’t think it’s important, unfortunately.

    “Unfortunately, a number of nonprofits don’t really function in a professional fashion” Neither do a lot of for-profit businesses. Have a look at some of my negative Yelp reviews if you doubt that.

    “staff members feel so pressed for time or are so sadly ill-informed about the project matter that they onboard volunteers in a less than thoughtful way”

    There are a number of reasons for this phenom, discussed in a variety of blogs, articles and research regarding volunteer manager – and it’s far more than I can cover in a blog comment. But the biggest reason, IMO, is that funders refuse to fund the resources, training and expertise needed to effectively engage volunteers at the level needed. As you will see discussed frequently on my pages, there is an idea, particularly in the corporate world and foundation world, that volunteers are “free”, and that “anyone” can manage a volunteer engagement scheme. I encourage you to get to know more about the field of volunteer management, to understand how this is being repeatedly talked about and the various ways different people and organizations are trying to address it. Susan Ellis’s “Hot Topic” at energizeinc.com is a good place to find out the latest debates.

    Reply

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