Last weekend, I was reviewing some interesting research on nonprofit executives and the challenges that they face. I realized that healthy volunteer involvement could help solve many of the key issues that plague leaders.
Why are Volunteers Important?
Some Leaders Still Don’t Know
Although the value of volunteers is clear to most who work with them directly, there are still many who don’t see the full picture and value of the volunteer effort at their nonprofit.
While it may be easy to pinpoint the value of a volunteer board director, it’s a little more difficult for leaders to see the contributions of rank-and-file volunteers and how they are a key part in helping an organization thrive over the long-term.
While it’s easy to calculate the value of volunteer time, anything beyond that appears to be a major blind spot. The result? Volunteer involvement is considered less strategic and more tactical and is rarely included in the agency’s larger talent management or staffing approach, let alone development plan.
Even when volunteers handle essential direct service roles, many nonprofits still don’t fully recognize that their organization simply would not survive, or at the very least cannot scale in any meaningful way, without this vital talent pool.
Every year, in responses from our annual Volunteer Management Progress Report survey, we hear from volunteer coordinators around the world. One of their primary challenges comes from within their own organization — that their leaders do not make the connection between volunteerism and the essential functions of their nonprofit, despite that they are often a significant portion of their workforce.
Here are a few challenges noted by leaders of volunteers from our most recent survey:
- “Moving past volunteer engagement as a resource to a core leadership value in our organization.”
- “Getting the development team to understand how volunteers effect the bottom line.”
- “Undervalued volunteers as resource.”
- “Buy in from Executive Team on the importance of my role and the value volunteers bring to an organization.”
- “I need the leaders of our nonprofit to understand my value and the value of volunteers. I don’t feel respected or that the volunteers get the credit they deserve. I am fed up with having to beg and grovel for money for thank you’s or recognition for volunteers. I’m tired.”
What’s more, leaders often underestimate the complexity of the multi-faceted work of recruiting, training, supervising, appreciating, and administering an effective volunteer strategy and what it really takes to be successful. In fact, many across the organization appear clueless of this required expertise.
Here are more challenges noted by leaders of volunteers in our survey:
- “Recognition of my position and program within the agency. My boss doesn’t understand my experience that I have brought with me to the agency.”
- “Appreciation by higher authorities / superiors who think “anyone can run a volunteer program.”
- “I feel that many of my peers, both inside and outside of my organization, underestimate the multiple levels of management my role entails and the importance of my position within the organization. Due to this, I often must work with outdated software, limited resources, and lack of voice in leadership decisions.”
- “My challenge is getting staff to see the importance of implementing and continually using a formalized and structured format to train and retain volunteers.”
While many employees can claim to be misunderstood, it can have serious consequences when it comes to an organization’s resilience and ability to thrive. Volunteers and donors can act as a safety net as organizations work their way through challenging and uncertain times. Without a strong ecosystem of support, they are left to survive on their own.
What’s unfortunate – particularly at this point in time when the economy is uncertain and the pandemic rages on — that nonprofit leaders often miss the tremendous potential that volunteers can bring to the table to boost the impact, sustainability, and ultimate success of their nonprofit once the danger passes.
And even more challenges noted by leaders of volunteers:
- “CEO understanding the importance of volunteers, and making the program a priority in his strategic thinking.”
- “Getting leadership buy-in on the relevance of utilizing volunteers at all levels of our organization AND allocating adequate resources (staff and budget line items) to effectively build a thriving volunteer program.”
- “Positioning the volunteer program as an essential consideration for the strategic planning goals of the organization.”
- “Getting the leadership within the (municipal) organization to be a part of the big picture in planning the volunteer structure – matching the org strategy with volunteer support.”
In the current environment, it may not be judicious to put volunteers in harm’s way, and appropriately many nonprofits have pushed the pause button on volunteer service at their brick and mortar and sometimes replaced them with temporary workers.
At the same time, they’ve also pushed the pause button on volunteer support, communication, training, team-building, and strategic planning – not to mention engaging volunteers to serve remotely. In addition, thousands of volunteer coordinators have been furloughed, effectively shutting down the volunteer effort.
Given the fluid relationships between volunteers as donors and donors as volunteers, this seems short-sighted and unfortunate in the face of so much struggle to survive in the nonprofit sector.
The solution has always been right in front of our noses – the community holds all the answers.
Even in the face of clear research on the positive connections between volunteerism and philanthropy myths and limiting beliefs abound concerning the imaginary silos between volunteers and donors.
And still …. even in this crisis when nonprofits struggle to serve vulnerable populations … the power of volunteerism goes untapped.
Volunteers Can Solve Many Challenges for Nonprofit Executives
There are also many ways volunteer engagement can help solve some of the most pressing issues nonprofit leaders face.
Consider the top five pain points for nonprofit executive directors and CEO’s below. Note how involvement volunteers strategically can address them head on.
Challenge #1: Staff Turnover & Burnout
It’s expensive to replace employees and nonprofits hate to lose productive, high-quality people. But, that’s just what happens when they are overworked and under supported. But that can all change with a more robust and blended volunteer-employee teams that have a focus on results.
- Expand volunteer workforce to work alongside staff to meet mission (traditional volunteers, skills-based volunteers, event volunteers, virtual volunteers, etc.).
- Train, coach, and expect employees to delegate tasks to volunteers in a strategic and intentional way and evaluate performance on how well they collaborate with volunteers to extend what can be accomplished.
- Provide sufficient resources to the volunteer services department, along with support and the authority to scale a thriving volunteer base so that it can become a force multiplier when it comes to mission impact.
- Hire skilled volunteer engagement professionals (e.g. those with a CVA credential) who have the experience and ability to develop complex programs, versus hiring newbies who are not prepared to lead a modern volunteer effort.
Challenge #2: Board Engagement
Finding and keeping quality boards of directors is a perennial problem for executives. Board diversity is also an increasing concern as calls for greater equity resound throughout the world. The expansive social network that every volunteer brings with them, combined with their own lived experiences, can be rich sources for leadership potential. However, many nonprofits continue to look outside, rather than inside for talent.
- Create a purposeful leadership development pipeline to identify high potentials, prepare them for leadership, and invite them to take part in board activities.
- Diversify the composition of board appointments by diversifying the volunteer base as a start, by attracting new volunteer groups that have not taken part in the past.
- Remember that board members are also volunteers; be sure to use the best practices in volunteer engagement that you also use for non-governance supporters.
Challenge #3: Outreach, Marketing & Awareness
Nonprofits must compete in a crowded marketplace with other organizations that may have overlapping missions and donor bases. In an increasingly digital world, it is particularly difficult to break through the noise without an effective marketing and communications strategy. The good news is that this work can be done remotely, from anywhere in the world. All a nonprofit need do is ask, and volunteers with the requisite skills are ready to help.
- Tap the social capital of volunteers’ personal networks to reach new and diverse communities through word of mouth marketing and tell-a-friend campaigns.
- Develop a volunteer-led speakers bureau to plan community outreach, education and tabling activities at special events in the community to raise the agency’s profile.
- Engage skills-based marketing volunteers to supply pro-bono marketing and branding consultation, strategic planning, and implementation hours.
Challenge #4: Individual Giving
It’s unclear how individual giving will be affected by a looming recession, but why wait to find out? Volunteers can help development teams in a myriad of ways, both in raising awareness, sharing stories, making targeted asks, and giving themselves. Not sure if volunteers would like to support you financially (or are already doing so)? The only way to know is to ask.
- Don’t be afraid to make financial asks of volunteers but be sure they are handled with care and sensitivity and that they are scheduled properly (e.g., volunteer Appreciation Week is NOT the time to launch a volunteer giving campaign).
- Develop and encourage Peer-to-Peer fundraising projects for volunteers, such as birthday fundraisers, to help support special projects or capital campaigns
- Develop a volunteer-led speakers bureau to plan community outreach, education, and tabling activities at special events in the community.
Challenge #5: Donor Loyalty & Retention
Like individual giving, organizations are concerned about keeping their donors happy, engaged, and giving. Donor loyalty of huge interest, and it should be. It is much more difficult to raise money from a stranger than it is from a friend. And, volunteers can play a part in retaining your valued supporters, as they understand on an intimate level what your nonprofit has achieved because they have often been part of the process.
- Track the relationships between volunteers and donors, as many contribute both time and financial gifts to the organizations they know and love; many organizations are unaware of the existing overlap and flow of volunteers to donor and vice versa.
- Ensure volunteers have an exceptional experience and are treated well by all levels of staff; the more they enjoy the experience and find meaning in it, the more likely they are to extend the ways they offer support, keep volunteering, and continue to give.
Why Volunteers are Important? The Bottom Line
Now is the time to bring your supporters closer and engage them in a conversation about your work now and into the future.
If you engage volunteers in any way, they are essential to your sustainability and should be supported and resourced appropriately.
The investment in time and effort WILL pay off.
Now isn’t the time to put them on the back burner, or those who support and lead them. Instead, it’s time to reinforce your safety net of supporters (say it with me: donors and volunteers).
Keep them updated, tap them for advice, engage them in special projects, develop their skills and talents, have a little fun, and yes invite them to give financially.
But whatever you do, don’t take volunteers, or those who lead them, for granted.