Boksi [Public domain]
January 31, 2020; Generocity

Is hosting and coordinating volunteers at a nonprofit a blessing, or a curse? According to Valerie Johnson, a contributing writer for Generocity, it depends. She is not referring to the volunteers who serve on nonprofit boards, but those volunteers who come to contribute their time and physical presence (“sweat equity”) to nonprofit programs. These are the good-hearted folks who just want to read a book to a preschooler or sing holiday songs with the elderly once a year, or shop for toys with their own children and drop them off at a big party your organization will hold. No big deal to manage. Right? Perhaps not.

Johnson points out that many nonprofits rely on volunteers, such as food banks and soup kitchens. Their business model is designed around this and they are usually staffed with a volunteer coordinator and others who can manage the ebb and flow of unpaid volunteers. This allows them to maintain service quality.

Most nonprofits, however, are not set up to handle volunteers and do not have the personnel, plans, or policies in place to manage them. When the occasion arises and a corporate funder or a board member wants to bring employees over for a day of community service, it is not something a nonprofit can easily say “no” to. But these requests can burden overworked staff with new assignments that often take them away from other important “real” work. According to Johnson:

At those nonprofits, there isn’t a policy in place for volunteers. There isn’t an orientation pre-packaged and ready to go. There isn’t a volunteer job description or any kind of agreement that outlines what volunteers should be doing. There aren’t slots to fill or immediate needs that volunteers can help out with. All of that is worked out on the spot by whichever staff person ends up drawing the short straw, and it’s left undocumented because that staff person then needs to work overtime to do their actual job.

Who wins with these kinds of volunteer days and volunteer efforts? Not all would present the same view as Generocity. In April 2019, Independent Sector released its annual value of volunteer time as $25.43 per hour (up three percent from the year before), extolling the value that volunteers bring to nonprofits. According to Independent Sector, about 63 million Americans volunteer about eight billion hours of their time, talent, and effort to improve and strengthen their communities. Based on the new value of their volunteer time, they are contributing approximately $203.4 billion to the economy through nonprofit organizations of all types. According to Dan Cardinali, president and CEO of Independent Sector, “We know that giving of our time, talent, and effort transforms organizations, communities, and our nation, and also has profound effects on the individuals giving their time.”

Clearly, there are two sides to this. There are nonprofits whose organizational models are designed to include volunteers. They benefit from the time given by volunteers and have the internal staff capacity to orient and manage those who choose to give their time and talent. This is a win-win for both the nonprofit and volunteers. Then, there are the nonprofits who are stretched to capacity and do not have dedicated staff to work with volunteers but are still asked to manage occasional and sometimes ongoing volunteer programs. For them, this is a costly undertaking in staff time and morale and in actual dollars when all is calculated out. Some thought and balance are needed from those seeking to volunteer as well as from the nonprofits who provide the programs and platforms.

Perhaps the balance needed can be found in the questions posed by Valerie Johnson to those seeking to volunteer:

  • “Are you providing a service that fills an identified need of a nonprofit?”
  • “Are you volunteering at the times that the nonprofit needs volunteers?”
  • “Have you considered making a donation to help ensure that the nonprofit has the funds they need to execute the logistics of volunteering?”

—Carole Levine