Volunteers as a Key Element of Nonprofit Org Design: Braille Institute San Diego

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May 18, 2015; Daily Transcript/San Diego Source

Nonprofits have an enormous capacity to function well above their budget grade with the use of volunteers, but many are so unsystematic about their recruitment and deployment that they get little of real value back.

One important difference between those that make it work in an exponential way and those who do not is the way the former consider their potential volunteer labor force as a core part of the organizational design. For those who do not make it work as well, it is less well thought out or simply an add-on.

The Braille Institute’s San Diego Center does make it a part of its organizational design. It even measures and monitors the ratio of volunteers to staff, which is 12:1. 

Richard Ybarra writes, “While many nonprofit organizations benefit from volunteers, Braille Institute is particularly intentional in its placement, training, and retention program to find and keep strong volunteers to strengthen the organization.”

And the result is a more sustainable budget, a more protected position in the community, and the ability to provide its services for free. “Volunteers are the heart of our organization,” says Rosie Rascon, Braille Institute San Diego’s volunteer services manager. “Thanks in large part to our engaged volunteers, Braille Institute San Diego services remain free for all students and clients. That means our classes, our technology instruction, orientation and mobility training, transportation, library, and more are all free.”

There is a cost to seeing volunteers as core to your design, however; a strong process for interviewing, training, and placing volunteers in the right role for them is in place at the Braille institute. We encourage you to go back to the source article to see what the Braille Institute does. They do not farm it out to an intermediary to recruit; they seem to look at the process as if they were hiring for retention—which they are. It also allows those served by the organization to give back.

But again, the key is to commit to the concept and make it a part of your organizational identity. “Volunteerism is a core part of our organization’s identity, and has been since our founding in 1919,” says Peter Mindnich, president of Braille Institute. “Without our volunteers, we simply could not fulfill our mission. Collectively, volunteers contribute more than 150,000 hours of assistance annually, and this enables us to continue serving our clients free of charge.”—Ruth McCambridge


  • Jayne Cravens

    “Nonprofits have an enormous capacity to function well above their budget grade with the use of volunteers”

    Another old-fashioned approach to volunteer engagement – the value of volunteers is that they are free labor, and we “use” volunteers.

    Please, Nonprofit Quarterly, it’s time to talk about the true value of volunteers, which is so far beyond “money-saved.” And we don’t use volunteers – we engage them!