Tag Archives: recruitment

If humans can do it, so can volunteers (who are, BTW, also humans)

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersWhen should you involve humans in the care and support of vulnerable populations, like children, people with disabilities, women who have been victims of domestic violence, etc., or in high-risk situations, like working with wildlife or fighting fires?

Most people would say humans are essential to all of those scenarios – that care and support cannot be provided in those situations without humans, that emergency response cannot be provided by humans, that addressing the needs of wildlife adversely affected by humans cannot be done without humans. And I would agree. I bet you would too. What’s the alternative – robots? Not yet, robots… not yet…

But what do humans need in order to be able to provide appropriate care and support in those high-responsibility, even high-risk, situations, and to stay safe themselves? Humans need:

  • to be appropriately screened and vetted, with inappropriate humans turned away and appropriate humans brought into the program
  • specific training for these situations – and, perhaps, ongoing training
  • regular, appropriate supervision
  • regular, quality support

You would agree with all of that, right?

Now change the word humans in the aforementioned text the word volunteers. Suddenly, the conversation changes.

Volunteers aren’t appropriate!

Volunteers could endanger the clients!

Volunteers will harm the wildlife!

What’s different? Just one thing: when we were talking about humans before, you were immediately thinking of paid staff. Now that I change the word to volunteers, we’re talking about unpaid staff, and many automatically assume that means untrained, unsupervised people who work whenever they might maybe find some time.

Volunteers mean just one thing: people who aren’t paid a wage, that aren’t given financial compensation for their service hours. That’s it! Volunteers do NOT have to mean untrained, unvetted people, just anyone off the street who says, “I have a good heart! I want to help!”

No one who has not been appropriately vetted, no one who lacks the necessary training, no one who cannot be appropriately supervised and no one who is not regularly supported should be doing any work with vulnerable populations or with wildlife, paid or not. A paycheck has nothing to do with a person’s appropriateness to undertake a role at a nonprofit, NGO, charity, etc.

So, with that said, when should a nonprofit, NGO, charity, school or other mission-based organization involve a paid person instead of an unpaid person? Susan Ellis of Energize says it best, in her book, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success:

Offering a salary gives the agency a pre-determined number of work hours per week, the right to dictate the employee’s work schedule, a certain amount of control over the nature and priorities of the work to be done, and continuity. When you pay a salary, you can require that the person give your organization forty hours a week or whatever number is necessary. Because most people need to earn a living, people can rarely give one agency that much volunteer time per week… (pages 12 – 13).

And, to be fair, people DESERVE to earn a living. I’m looking at you, United Nations agencies that have six-month unpaid internships – volunteer gigs that only well-off young people can undertake…

Volunteers can do high-responsibility, even high-risk activities, and they can fill expert roles. In fact, they actually DO all of these things already, all over the USA and all over the world. What the vast majority volunteers usually cannot do is provide 40 hours a week of service, even 20 hours a week, to an organization, week-after-week – they can’t afford it! Many roles at a nonprofit, non-governmental organization or charity require a person to staff a role full-time, or even part-time, 20 hours a week, week after week – and that means, to keep that role staffed at all times, the agency must pay someone. Many roles at nonprofits, NGOs, charities, schools, etc., require someone to have a great deal of training and experience in order to do the role that needs to be done, and most people that have the training and experience necessary for such roles have such because it is related to their career, their paid work, and they got the certification or degree(s) necessary for such for their paid work.

I don’t believe in involving volunteers to save money – I believe an organization should create volunteering opportunities primarily because they believe a volunteer would be the best person for that particular role, just as an organization reserves certain roles specifically for paid staff, and you make those decisions based on a myriad of criteria. I also believe that one needs to tread carefully when asking an economically challenged community, one with a very high unemployment rate and people struggling to pay for the basic necessities of life, to donate their time to keep a nonprofit afloat.

So, how much time and responsibility may you ask of a volunteer? What’s reasonable?

That is a question that is frequently asked. And there are no easy answers. It can vary from organization to organization, from community to community.

There are communities that are well-served by entirely volunteer fire stations, with enough well-trained, constantly trained volunteers always on-call to respond to any fire or other emergency. But in those same communities there might be a cold-weather shelter for the homeless and the nonprofit running such is struggling to find over-night volunteers to manage the facility for 6-8 hours at a time. Why does one group have a waiting list of people that want to volunteer while another in the same community, with less requirements for training and less of a time commitment each month, struggle?

There can be all sorts of reasons why one organization can easily attract volunteers to high-intensity, high-responsibility, high-commitment roles, and another cannot:

  • One role may look fun, exciting, interesting and even heroic, while another may look difficult, scary, even depressing.
  • One role may look like it could help the volunteer in his or her career or university studies, while another may just look like a lot of work for no pay.
  • One role may look like the challenges would be uplifting, while another may look like it would be disheartening.
  • One role may seem like you get a lot of community recognition, that you are frequently thanked, while another may be rather thankless.
  • One role may look like it would be fun, at least some of the time, while another may look daunting and soul-draining.
  • One organization may be targeting a particular social or economic group that has the financial safety net and family structure (child care) to be able to afford to volunteer, while another organization may be targeting a group that can’t afford to do unpaid work (they are already caregivers, they have child care needs, etc.).

If you are having trouble attracting volunteers, you need to look at a lot of things:

  • Is it easy to know just from looking at your web site what volunteers do, the different roles, the time commitment, the training requirements, and how to sign up?
  • When someone calls or emails about volunteering, or submits an application, do they get an immediate reply regarding next steps? In fact, do they get info at all, or does someone take their name and say someone will get back to them and then, most of the time, no one ever does?
  • Are your next steps for volunteering with your organization something that the volunteer can get started on in a few days? In several weeks? In a few months? The further away the next step, the more likely the volunteer candidate won’t follow through.
  • Do you need to alter the volunteer role so that a volunteer would get more out of it, in terms of training, career-development, university class credit, or personal fulfillment? Is there anything you can do to make the role more fun?
  • Can the people you are trying to recruit as volunteers afford to volunteer – to work for free? Do they have child care responsibilities that are preventing them from helping?
  • Could you make the time commitment less for volunteers? Could you try to recruit more volunteers for shorter shifts, for instance, instead of fewer volunteers for longer shifts?
  • Does the task seem especially intimidating or daunting? Could you make it less so, by reducing the time commitment the volunteer would have to make, or by guaranteeing that there is a seasoned volunteer or employee always with the new volunteer? Or by taking away the tasks in the role that are the most intimidating and giving them to paid staff? Or by better assuring candidates that they will be fully trained before they are put into potentially challenging situations?
  • Are you asking too much from volunteers in terms of a time commitment, training and the responsibilities they will undertake as unpaid staff? Do you need to convert such roles into paid positions, in order to better attract the people that can make the time and emotional commitment to the role?

This is yet another blog that was inspired by my own real-life moments – two, in fact: one from a nonprofit that felt I was being inappropriate for disagreeing with them that their work is too high-risk for volunteers, and another from a situation that is happening in my own community regarding volunteer recruitment. It was supposed to be two blogs – but they seem so closely related, I put them together.

Also see:

Managers of volunteers & resistance to diversity

It never fails: try to have a conversation about diversity and volunteerism, get comments about how such conversations are not needed.

“Thoughtful Thursday” is an online discussion about issues related to the involvement of volunteers. It takes place in the comments section of the blog and on Twitter using the tag #ttvolmgrs. Two weeks ago, the subject was diversity. The comments section on the blog are a perfect example of how these much-needed conversations in the nonprofit sector frequently turn into:

We don’t need this.
We are doing just fine with the volunteers we have.
Our recruitment has worked for 25 years. No need to change.
We are not going to lower our standards in order to get new volunteers.
Young volunteers just don’t have the commitment that are current volunteers have.

And it’s what frustrates me most about managers of volunteers. Most – yes, I said MOST – are resistant to change. Meanwhile, they wonder why they are having trouble recruiting, or keeping, volunteers.


(not all the comments are negative on the subject – so there’s hope)

Also see:

Recruiting Local Volunteers To Increase Diversity Among the Ranks (also explores the WHY)

why you can’t find/keep volunteer firefighters

I’m one of the few – and maybe the only – consultants regarding volunteer engagement that regularly delves into the subject of volunteer firefighters. I’m not sure why most DOVIAs and other associations of managers of volunteers avoid the subject. Surely the fundamentals we volunteer management experts believe are essential to success in involving volunteers also apply to involving volunteer firefighters? Yet, go to a conference on volunteer engagement and you will find few, if any, workshops related to engaging and supporting volunteer firefighters. Go to a web site with resources about volunteer engagement, and you may not find any information about the particular environment of volunteer firefighting. Likewise, walk into a fire station which is staffed fully or partly by volunteer firefighters, and you probably won’t see any books related to volunteer management, in general, and few managers of volunteer firefighters attend DOVIA-related meetings or conferences.

This gap really bothers me.

I’ve been interested in the reasons fire stations involve volunteer firefighters, and the challenges faced in recruiting and retaining such volunteers, since 2001, when I started dating a volunteer firefighter in Germany. He’s now my husband (and now a volunteer firefighter in the USA). It’s been fascinating to compare Germany – with the highest number of volunteer firefighters, per capita, in the world – with the USA. Both are facing similar challenges regarding volunteer firefighters – and both have far more people complaining about “the way things used to be,” rather than addressing the realities of the day and leveraging our times many strengths to recruit, involve and support volunteer firefighters. Earlier this year, I compiled research and case studies regarding recruitment and retainment of volunteer firefighters & justifications for involving volunteer firefighters that do NOT relate to “money saved”. It was my tiny effort to get stations that are staffed wholly or partly by volunteers to quit complaining and start changing so they can flourish in the world we live in now.

I also try to track issues related specifically to volunteer firefighters that are talked about in the news. Recently, a colleague passed on two articles to me:

Without volunteers, rural fire districts wouldn’t exist, laments the lack of volunteers in several rural areas of Oregon, and blames the problem on the attitude of young people, with comments like:

  • Young people don’t believe in an expectation that they will volunteer for their community
  • “Most of the younger folks say, ‘We don’t have time,” or ‘We’re too busy with class,'”
  • “It’s hard to get the volunteers to show up (to calls)…It seems like on training night they have something else better to do. If it’s in the middle of the night, the younger guys would rather sleep, so it’s just two or three of us that show up on a regular basis.”
  • “They want to be firemen and (then) they see something they don’t like. Like a wreck.”

The article never interviews any current or former volunteers, to find out why they have volunteered, challenges to their volunteering, why they left, etc. It never interviews young people to find out their attitudes about volunteerism and community service – it just takes the word of a couple of guys that do not represent that demographic. And those comments wouldn’t make me want to volunteer there if I were in my 20s or 30s, as they obviously don’t like people from that generation – they say so! 

And in the same publication is this: Coos Bay trying to buck trend of declining volunteer firefighters. It attributes lack of volunteers to:

  • the community’s aging population
  • economic problems
  • stricter standards for volunteers regarding their training
  • lack of monetary compensation
  • busier lives
  • lack of social interactions – it’s just work to do, no fun aspects, like there used to be when you could drink alcohol in the stations

Again, no current or former volunteers are interviewed.

These articles also leave out some other factors that are, no doubt, affecting the numbers of volunteer firefighters:

  • Firefighters don’t fight fires all that much. They don’t even do rescues all that much. The vast majority of their calls are medical calls. They do far more ambulatory/paramedic work than they do true firefighting work. Ask your volunteer firefighters, current and former, which calls they find most appealing – most will tell you fire fighting. Perhaps it’s time for the USA to look into the German model, where a separate, dedicated agency handles emergency medical calls? That greatly reduces training costs for firefighters – as well as equipment costs – and means firefighters get to be, mostly, firefighters.
  • The national union for career firefighters has stated it is against volunteer firefighters and would like to see all volunteers eliminated and replaced with paid people. A career firefighter in a big city is not allowed to be a volunteer firefighter in the small rural area where he or she lives, because of union rules as well. Volunteers feel this animosity from some career firefighters, and it creates a very unwelcoming environment in many stations. Unless this animosity is addressed, and statements about volunteers being valued because they save money stop, the number of volunteer firefighters is going to continue to drop.
  • Firefighters haven’t changed how they recruit. AT ALL. A sign out in front of a station that says “Volunteers needed” just isn’t going to cut it anymore. If there are young people in your community, there are potential volunteer firefighters, and you have to go where THEY are. You also have to have an ONLINE volunteering application. You have to be posting videos on Facebook and YouTube and Twitter of your firefighters in action, and reminding people via social media what volunteers do, how to do be one, and WHY to be one. And you have to reach out to people that speak languages in addition to English to make sure they know about volunteering opportunities and how to qualify.
  • Many stations do a substandard job of responding to inquiries aboutvolunteering, and applications from potential volunteers. Are you sure that EVERY person that calls or emails the city, the county, or your station about volunteering as a firefighter is getting a prompt, courteous, encouraging response? And are you sure every application is being responded to rapidly? Read Volunteers needed, but are they wanted? and Fire station turns away volunteers – & how it could be different for more on this subject.

As for the lack of a social aspect among firefighters today, that is HUGELY important for volunteer firefighters, particularly those that are not volunteering as a part of career exploration/advancement. Those volunteers hear all about all the work that needs to be done – but without some kind of social aspect, they aren’t going to last long. Also, social gatherings help to build cohesion among firefighters that can have benefits later during crisis situations. Could your station have a regular, unofficial meetup at a favorite pub once a month for all off-duty firefighters to play some darts, shoot some pool and just hang out socially? Would leaders at your station organize firefighter-only gatherings in their homes, such as potlucks or lawn games, even just twice a year? Would someone organize a rafting trip or a day trip to do bungee jumping for any firefighters interested in such? Creating a social aspect for your firefighters is tricky: activities have to be entirely unofficial, entirely voluntary, and regularly done in order to cultivate the kind of brother and sisterhood you want among all of your firefighters, volunteer and career. But without making a consistent effort, your volunteers will most certainly drift away, tired of being asked only to provide labor, and receiving no real value in return.

There ARE potential volunteer firefighters out there, even in your small town. You might be hearing a lot about how people are preferring microvolunteering, where they volunteer for only a few minutes or hours once, and have no requirement to ever volunteer again, but the reality is that there are also a LOT of people who are hungry to connect, hungry for a deeper, more substantial activity that connects them with the community and causes they believe in. Volunteer firefighting can have a great deal of appeal to today’s young people. But if you don’t have a welcoming environment, if you aren’t trying to reach them where they are, if you aren’t using social media, and if you are just talking about all the work that has to be done and the obligations to be fulfilled, those young people are going to go elsewhere. And that’s a shame, because they have a lot of energy, talent, ideas and strengths from which your fire station could benefit. Are you ready to evolve to involve them?

Of course, the only way to know for sure about the challenges for volunteers in any one fire department or association is to survey both current and departed volunteer firefighters – and perhaps those that applied to volunteer but never completed the process. And this kind of survey should be done at least every other year. Make a list of questions you want to ask these current and former volunteers, and then have journalism students from the local high school or management students from the local college or university ask the questions of the current and former volunteers – volunteers are much more likely to speak freely if it isn’t to the fire chief. Have the students compile all of the answers, and share it freely, openly, and welcome comments from everyone on what is offered. That’s your starting point.

Also see:

Anger motivates volunteers as much as sympathy

For years, during my workshops on volunteer engagement, I have half-jokingly said I have never volunteered out of the goodness of my heart or to be nice – because I’m not at all a nice person – and have, instead, volunteered because I’m angry about something. I have used this as a way to introduce audiences to the plethora of motivations of volunteers, to help them create better recruitment and engagement schemes.

Now, I have some science to back me up!

Someone sent me this link today: “Anger motivates volunteers as much as sympathy.”  The authors of the study are Dr. Robert Bringle and his students Ashley Hedgepath and Elizabeth Wall at Appalachian State University.  

And it’s not the first study that’s said this: Ilana Silber published “The angry gift: A neglected facet of philanthropy” in 2012. 

It’s a mistake to think that all volunteers are motivated only by kindness or selflessness. There are all sorts of motivations for volunteering. People volunteer because they:

  • like the idea of being associated with the particular organization or activity
  • want experience to put on job applications
  • want to meet people, as friends or for their social or business connections
  • think the activity looks fun
  • like the people that have invited them to volunteer, or like the people volunteering
  • are curious
  • are bored

and, yes, because they are angry about something – about how many discarded pets are at shelters or women’s lack of access to reproductive health information or domestic violence or barriers to girls in STEM-related careers or the condition of the environment and on and on.

And all of these are GREAT reasons for volunteering. Do you welcome all of these volunteers at your organization?

Also see:

Making certain volunteers feel unwelcomed because of your language

Do you welcome people with your language?

Screening Volunteers for Attitude

Mission statements for your volunteer engagement

Welcoming immigrants as volunteers at your organization

A new “cyber” volunteering platform for small NGOs

The Cibervoluntarios Foundation is looking “to develop a cybervolunteering platform, made for little organizations worldwide.” They have a fundraising campaign at GlobalGiving to raise money for the platform, which includes a link to an 11-page document that provides a bit more information. Neither volunteers nor host organizations would be charged to use the platform.

I’ve tweeted the organization to find out how this proposed platform will be different from the United Nations’ existing Online Volunteering service, the world’s largest virtual volunteering platform for NGOs to recruit online volunteers. They tweeted back that cyber volunteering is different than online volunteering – but didn’t say how. I don’t yet see a difference. Cyber volunteering, in English, has been used since the 1990s as another word for virtual volunteering. 

Not that I don’t think  there’s room for new approaches to online volunteering – but given the over-abundance of platforms allowing organizations to recruit traditional volunteers, and how that has made it harder to recruit volunteers, not easier, I would hate to see the same thing happen with virtual volunteering.

According to the web site, “Cibervoluntarios” are:

agentes de cambio social que contribuyen, de forma desinteresada, a fomentar el uso y conocimiento de herramientas tecnológicas entre la población con menores oportunidades de acceso y/o formación… los Cibervoluntarios usan la tecnología desde una perspectiva social y contribuyen a eliminar brechas sociales mediante la sensibilización, información y formación de forma presencial, online y a medida para satisfacer las necesidades de cada persona o colectivo social con el que trabajamos. Los cibervoluntarios dan conocer las posibilidades que ofrece el uso de las Nuevas Tecnologías de una forma útil, sencilla, bien a través de la red, bien en persona, de tú a tú, mediante cursos, charlas, conferencias, talleres, eventos, seminarios, entre otros.

My translation:

social change agents who contribute selflessly to promote the use of technological tools and knowledge among people with fewer opportunities to access and / or training… Cibervoluntarios use technology from a social perspective and help eliminate social gaps through advocacy, information and training in person, online and customized to meet the needs of each person or social group with which we work. The Cybervolunteer knows the possibilities offered by the use of new technologies in a useful, simple, either through the network, either in person, face to face, through courses, lectures, conferences, workshops, events, seminars, among others.

So, perhaps for this organization, cibervoluntarios or cyber volunteers are what are called, in English, circuit riders or ICT volunteers – volunteers that help both individuals as well as staff at nonprofits regarding using computer and Internet-related tools, and such volunteers can be both onsite and online. Examples of this would include all volunteers that help teach people computer skills at initiatives like Austin FreeNet (Austin, Texas), FreeGeek (Portland, Oregon), EmpowerUp (Southwest Washington state, Vancouver area), and World Computer Exchange – and even PeaceCorps and VSO. HandsOn also has several IT volunteer tech initiatives, which they brand as skilled-based volunteer engagement:

HandsOn Tech Pittsburgh, Pennsylvannia. Follow on Twitter at @HandsOnTechPGH,
HandsOn Tech Atlanta, Georgia. Follow on Twitter at @HandsOnTechATL
HandsOn Tech Boston, Massachusetts. Follow on Twitter at @HandsOnTechBOS
HandsOn Tech Chicago, Illinois. Follow on Twitter at @HandsOnTechChi
HandsOn Tech New York City, New York. Follow on Twitter at @NYCHandsOnTech
HandsOn Tech Detroit, Michigan. Follow on Twitter at @HandsOnTechDET

One of the first such ICT volunteering initiatives was through what was called CompuMentor, now TechSoup (that part of TechSoup’s programming has moved entirely online, via the TechSoup forum, and the nonprofit still publishes Working with Technical Volunteers: A Manual for NPOs free online). The United Nations Information Technology Service (UNITeS) tried to track all of these various ICT volunteering initiatives globally once upon a time – UNITeS both supported volunteers applying ICTs for development (ICT4D) and promoted volunteerism as a fundamental element of successful ICT4D initiatives. UNITeS was launched in 2000 by then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and was hosted by the United Nations Volunteers programme.

If the Cibervoluntarios organization is looking to develop an online matching service for IT volunteers or circuit riders, where volunteers would provide service onsite and or online to individuals and nonprofits, it might work – though I’d prefer to see this type of volunteering incorporated into the plethora of volunteer matching sites worldwide, or even just in Europe – or even just in Spain! I hope they will look over the UNITeS web site and TechSoup manual for tech volunteers, and provide lots of similar resources for both IT volunteers and the nonprofits that need them. And the organization is welcomed to translate and adapt my resources related to this subject for their web site, as long as I get credit somewhere:

  • Finding a Computer/Network Consultant (volunteer or paid)
    What can mission-based organizations do to recruit the “right” consultant for “tech” related issues, one that will not make them feel out-of-the-loop or out-of-control when it comes to tech-related discussions?
  • Short-term Assignments for Tech Volunteers
    A list of short-term projects for “tech” volunteers — assignments that might takes days, weeks or just a couple of months to complete.
  • One(-ish) Day “Tech” Activities for Volunteers
    This page provides advice on how to put together a one-day event, or just-a-few-days-of activity, for a group of tech volunteers onsite, working together, for a nonprofit, non-governmental organization (NGO), community-focused government program, school or other mission-based organization – or association of such.

Volunteers needed, but are they wanted?

This isn’t just a lesson regarding volunteer fire fighters; it’s a lesson for any organization that involves volunteers. Your organization might need volunteers, but does it really want them? Is this want expressed in the attitude and action of everyone that interacts with potential volunteers, and in all of your procedures regarding potential volunteers?

Yesterday, I reposted a blog from 2010 that was inspired by my husband’s frustration at trying to be a volunteer firefighter in the USA since moving here in 2009. As I noted in yesterday’s blog, my husband is German, he’s been a volunteer firefighter for most of his adult life in Germany, and he wants to remain such here in the USA. He has no interest in a professional firefighting career — he already has a career. He’s fluent in English, and ready to start out from the very beginning with training and certifications.

Since moving to Oregon in 2009, he has visited at least six fire stations in the state that involve volunteers, trying to find a place to volunteer. I was with him on most of those visits, and talked to him at length about all of his visits. And I am astounded by how differently each of these fire stations talks about volunteers and to potential applicants.

Take Silverton, a small, picturesque town outside of Salem. We happened to be passing by the fire station while on our motorcycles just a few weeks after arriving in Oregon, and thought we would stop by just to see if anyone was around. Indeed, there was someone – one of the paid, career firefighters, who, after hearing our story, said, “Volunteers are the backbone of this fire station!” He took us immediately on the tour of the station, told us all there was to know about becoming a fire fighter, detailed what volunteers get to do, which includes fighting fires, gave my husband an application to print out, and said that, while there were no guarantees, he would love for us to move to Silverton.

Another station that was excellent was Estacada, which we happened upon while it was having an open house. All of the firefighters were friendly, and we met one who was oh-so-proud to have volunteered for more than 10 years and enthusiastic about showing us the protocol for going on a call. After hearing my husband’s situation, he said, “Oh, please move to Estacada!” Had it been closer to Portland, we would have!

Unfortunately, both Silverton and Estacada were too far from Portland, where my husband works and where I travel to frequently for work. So we moved elsewhere, to a town with a fire station with a sign out in front saying, “Volunteers Needed.” My husband went in during regular business hours. According to my husband, the chief seemed annoyed to have to talk to him, wasn’t very forthcoming with information, gave short answers, and was vague about what the exact steps would be to become a volunteer. He also made statements that made it clear his preference for paid career firefighters rather than volunteers. Nevertheless, my husband filled out the application and turned it in in-person at the station. In the next few months, the fire station never called my husband – so he called them, two or three times. Each time, he felt the person on the phone didn’t really want to talk to him. In those calls, he was told that:

  • someone from the fire station had tried to call him but the number had been wrong (my husband confirmed the phone number they had on record was correct)
  • someone from the fire station had sent emails but my husband never responded (he never received such, and he confirmed the email they had on record was correct)
  • the academy for new volunteers was canceled, the next one wouldn’t happen for 10 months, and my husband could not go to another fire station’s academy as a substitute (later, we found out that the station had sent a small group of applicants to the academy in Silverton, in contrast to what they had told my husband)

He checked the web site and this fire station’s Facebook page regularly, but no information on volunteering was every posted or updated. As my husband put it, “Volunteers are needed, but they aren’t wanted.”

On his own, my husband visited another fire district during an open house, where he was told, for the most part, volunteers don’t do any fire fighting or emergency responding; they clean up the hoses or other equipment after a call. By contrast, another city’s firehouse staff invited him to view a training and said that, while volunteers were never first responders, they were often second responders, and in those cases, might undertake firefighting or emergency treatment responsibilities.

We ended up moving to Forest Grove, Oregon this year. We live two blocks from the fire station. The application process to be a volunteer is online, and my husband filled it out almost immediately after we moved into our home in January. Since then, he’s passed the physical test and the interview, and he will begin the academy next month. One of the leaders at the station saw us at a local event and approached us, asking if he had received the official offer yet and if he was excited. He was also proud to tell my husband, “Our volunteers aren’t just hose-rollers. They’re essential.”

What is your organization’s attitude regarding volunteers? Do your words, actions and procedures say, “Volunteers are essential, we value them, and we’re transparent and explicit about how to volunteer!”? Or do your words, actions and procedures say, “Volunteers are needed here, but we don’t really want them. They aren’t essential. If we didn’t have to involve them, we wouldn’t.”?

Also see: International Association of Fire Fighters is anti-volunteer

A volunteerism blog, not a political one

During this election season in the USA, there has been a lot of talk about the role volunteers played in the work of various campaigns, including the presidential campaign. But most of it has focused on the “free labor” aspect. Yet, as we all know (right?!), volunteers are NOT free.


The reason volunteers were effective in various campaigns this time around – and, well, always – isn’t because they were unpaid labor. Rather, it was because volunteers were the best people for certain tasks, and could do certain tasks far better than paid staff.


I got a lot of phone calls related to the election for the last three months. I realized after several of them that, when the person said, “I’m calling from the such-and-such campaign…”, I almost always interrupted them at some point, even if they were calling from a cause or campaign I supported, to say, “Hi, I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have absolutely no money to donate to the campaign whatsoever.” But when the person said, “I’m a volunteer, and I’m helping with the such-and-such campaign…” I let them finish their spiel and answered all of their questions (but still couldn’t give money).


I thought about why I was doing that, why I was being so much kinder to the volunteers, and the answer was, for me: the people that are volunteers are supporters of such-and-such campaign, no question. A lot of people will do anything for a paycheck and, therefore, I wonder if the motivation for the political call from someone who is being paid isn’t actually all about the commission they are trying to make for every person that donates. With a volunteer, I know, absolutely, that that person is volunteering from a passion for that candidate. And I want to be a part of that.

I ended up volunteering for a campaign because one of those callers said, up front, that he was a volunteer and he was NOT calling for money – rather, he was calling to see if I would be voting, if I would be supporting a certain presidential candidate, and if I wanted to volunteer. And I said yes. And there was something so warm and energizing about sitting in another volunteer’s house, with lots of other volunteers, calling potential voters on my cell phone, rather than being paid to sit in a corporate-esque phone bank making calls – do you think people could hear that in my voice? I do.


That is not to say people that are paid to work on campaigns don’t have passion. I have been paid to do public relations and marketing, and I’m quite passionate about the causes I’ve been paid to promote – I’m not sure I could do the same for something I don’t really feel personally supportive of. I used to cringe when I worked at the UN Volunteers program and people would try to say that UN Volunteers had more passion than UNDP workers in the field – having worked in the field, I could never tell the different in what contract someone had just based on the passion they exhibited, or didn’t in the field.


But the fact remains that, often, the public responds more positively to someone that says, “I’m a volunteer” than they do to a person that says, “I’m an employee.” And exactly the opposite is true as well in certain situations – some people will refuse to work with “just a volunteer”, even if that person has more qualifications and expertise than a paid employee of the same organization.

It goes back to what I’ve said again and again: for some tasks, volunteers are the best people for the job, and for some tasks, employees or paid consultants are the best people for the job, and it does NOT have to do with saving money!

Also see:

Writing a mission statement for your organization or program.

Going all-volunteer in dire economic times: use with caution

The Value of Volunteers (and how to talk about such)

What really happens when someone wants to volunteer with you?

what really happens when someone calls, emails or stops by your organization and says, “I want to volunteer!”? Maybe you know what should happen in theory, but what’s the reality?

When I’ve consulted with organizations — both nonprofits and schools — regarding this challenge, the results are always a shock: it turns out that many volunteers are turned away, because the message from the potential candidate rarely gets forwarded to the right person, because the information given to the potential volunteer is incomplete, uninspiring or even incorrect, or because followup with the volunteer doesn’t happen quickly or at all.

How to find out what’s happening at your organization with potential volunteers? Here are some ideas;

  • Sit down with each and every person who answers the phone and have a checklist they must go through for every person who calls, emails or stops by to express interest in volunteering (be sure to get approval from that person’s supervisor before you do this). An example of the checklist could be:
    • The person who talks with the potential volunteering fills out a log sheet with the candidate’s name, phone number, email address and the date of their call, email or site visit. This log sheet should be reviewed regularly by the volunteer coordinator or other manager to see what has happened with each of these people in terms of communication by  the organization regarding how to volunteer.
    • The person who interacts with the potential volunteer on the phone, via email or in-person gives that candidate the volunteer coordinator’s name, phone number and email.
    • The person who interacts with the candidate directs the person to the organization’s web site to download and complete an application

Just these three very simple steps — none of which are any significant burden on the person answering the phone or the organization’s email or greeting people at the front desk — are enough for you to find out what’s happening to people who inquire about volunteering with your organization: How many people inquire about volunteering versus how many people come to the first volunteer training? Is there too much time between a person’s inquiry or application and when they get to come to a first meeting or get placed in an assignment? This checklist, particularly the log sheet, will tell you, as will calling people on the login sheet later to survey them about their experience.

  • Have five friends or colleagues from outside your organization call or email your organization on different days, at different times, to inquire about volunteering, and afterwards, interview them about their experiences. Also look at the log-in sheet to make sure their inquiries were recorded. What are they consistently told by your organization? What are they not told but should have been? Were they logged in properly by the person they talked with? Do they walk away with a feeling of, “We really want you involved with us!” or “We’re really busy and we don’t know when we will get back to you”?
  • Survey all people who have applied to volunteer in the last three-six months. How do their rate the experience of when they asked to volunteer? What do they remembering being told? Did they walk away from that initial inquiry with a feeling of, “We really want you involved with us!” or “We’re really busy and we don’t know when we will get back to you”? What do they think could be improved about the experience?

These activities may lead to a very harsh reality staff may be reluctant to face: you may find out that your organization is regularly turning away people who want to volunteer. Talking about this with staff can be a challenge: people may become defensive about their actions, or lack their of (“I was really busy that day” or “I’m doing the best I can!”).

With those answering the phone or the organization’s email or greeting people at the front desk, emphasize that none of the checklist activities are any significant time burden; you may even want to do a skit to show just how quickly the activities can be undertaken. Make sure their supervisor’s agree that this is an appropriate and necessary use of their time.

The harder part will be to convince staff that everyone has a responsibility to make potential volunteers feel energized about the organization. Do you believe this yourself? If so, talk with senior management individually to get each of them on board with this idea and ask them to bring it up with their own direct reports. Also, talk about it when you meet with individual staff in formal meetings and informal settings, and present on the topic formally in staff trainings. If you aren’t convinced of this yourself… I think that’s something I’ll have to address in a different blog.

For trainings for staff on dealing with potential volunteers, skits can really help. For instance, present one as a worst-case scenario, in a humorous way, of someone asking about volunteering and being turned away with lack of enthusiasm, and then present another to show how easy it is to make a potential volunteer feel excited and welcomed. These can each be just a couple of minutes. The more outrageous or extreme these skits are, the more fun they will be and the more likely that staff will remember the lessons and take them to heart.

In reading this and the earlier blog entry about this challenge, you were probably assuming that I was thinking the volunteer coordinator would undertake all of the above investigation activities. But that may not be the case for all these steps; the Executive Director or an outside consultant may be that person instead. If you are that executive or consultant, what if you discover that the problem regarding volunteer recruitment is the volunteer coordinator herself/himself? What if you discover that the volunteer coordinator is not getting information in a timely manner regarding people who want to volunteer with your organization, or isn’t exhibiting an enthusiastic, encouraging attitude with potential volunteers?

I’ll address that in a blog later this week…

A version of this blog first appeared in October 2009.

I’m a Frustrated Volunteer

My last blog, I’m a volunteer & you should just be GRATEFUL I’m here!, talked about the entitlement volunteer, that person who feels he or she shouldn’t have to go through an orientation for new volunteers, shouldn’t have to be screened at all or his or her credentials confirmed, and shouldn’t have his or her volunteer or pro bono work supervised nor held to any standards.

But there’s also another volunteer: the frustrated volunteer wannabe. He or she is the person who is happy to go through all the orientation and training required to be a volunteer, and would really love feedback on what he or she is doing as a volunteer – the feedback is more valuable than a pin or a coffee mug thank you. So why is this person frustrated?

  • He or she can’t find information about volunteering – at least not easily – on an organization’s web site
  • Organizations this volunteer contacts because of postings on VolunteerMatch or other volunteer-matching site or volunteer centers never get back to him or her, despite the posting that said the organization needed/wanted volunteers
  • Organizations this volunteer contacts, by filling out their volunteer applications through their web sites or even going onsite, never get back to him or her
  • Organizations have orientations and trainings on a day and time this volunteer could never attend, and the organizations offer no alternatives that would better fit the volunteers’ schedule
  • The volunteer isn’t certain what he or she is supposed to be doing, and receives little direction or support when showing up for a project, an event or for a shift, or workig on a project from home
  • A staff person at an organization claiming to need highly-skilled volunteers puts the kabash on involving a volunteer he or she fears, because of the volunteer’s skills or experience, or because the volunteer asks questions that makes a staff person uncomfortable about his or her own job performance or skills

And I have a confession to make: since I’ve been back in the USA, for more than two years, that frustrated volunteer wannabe has been ME.

I have tried to volunteer sooo many times since September 2009, when I moved to Oregon. Key word on tried. Same for my husband, who has also tried to volunteer since coming to the USA. And then there are my friends, who have frequently expressed frustration to me at their attempts to volunteer – for instance, I got this in an email from a friend just last week:

I once tried to volunteer at some big music event that NAMEOFORGDELETED was putting on. I showed up at the assigned spot, and no one was there to tell me what to do, so I left. I volunteered again during their pledge drive, but generally found it unsatisfying. Never went back.

A benefit of my own attempts to volunteer, as well as the experiences that have been shared with me by others, has been the inspiration to write a lot of blog entries and web pages over the last two years, which I hope might help organizations who want to do a better job of involving and supporting volunteers:

I doubt any of the organizations I’ve tried to volunteer with know that these blogs are about, or inspired by, my experiences with them – it would never dawn on those organizations to follow their volunteers on Twitter or Facebook, or subscribe to a blog – even a volunteer who wrote on her volunteer application that she’s a trainer and researcher regarding volunteer management – or married to such.

But let me add that, on the rare ocassion when volunteering has worked out for me, it’s REALLY worked out – thank you, BPeace!

Trying to volunteer over the last two years has taught me more about volunteer management than any book, any workshop or any conference I’ve ever attended. I believe it’s made me a much better trainer and writer regarding volunteer management and community engagement. It’s also shown me, more than ever, why there has never been a greater need for volunteer management consultants

Also see: a listing of what I have done as a volunteer (and why I volunteer).

Can potential volunteers find you?

How Easy Is It to Find This Online: Your Organization’s Volunteering Opportunities?

Let’s find out…

Go to Google or Bing.

Type in the name of your city (and, perhaps, your state too, if there are many cities in your country with the same name) and the word volunteer. Or the words volunteers.

For instance:

Portland Oregon volunteers
Henderson Kentucky volunteers
Austin Texas volunteering

Or add a keyword (or words) related to your organization:

Portland Oregon animal shelter volunteers
Henderson Kentucky children volunteers
Austin Texas computer volunteering

What comes up? Does YOUR organization show up in the first page of results? On the second page of results? If it doesn’t, look at your web site: does your web site use the name of your city and state and the word volunteer on the home page, on the page about supporting your organization, on the page about volunteering with your organization, etc.?

Also try this with Twitter: type in the name of your city and the word volunteers into the search function. What comes up? Are people looking for volunteering opportunities (meaning you should contact them!)? Does anything your organization has tweeted recently come up?

In short – how easy is it for people using the Internet to find volunteering opportunities at your organization? If it’s not easy, then is it any wonder you are having trouble recruiting volunteers?

Also see:

REQUIRED Volunteer Information on Your Web Site

Your flow chart for volunteers
(example of an effective volunteer in-take process)