The truly unsung heroes of nonprofits are the volunteers. These caring and generous souls do not get paid for their work. In fact, they often give not just time but money to the nonprofit. At events, they hand out programs, take tickets, seat guests, and work registration—one of the most difficult, yet thankless, tasks at any event. They stuff, address, and stamp thousands of envelopes. They drive patients to doctor appointments, gather and deliver food, advocate for abused women, provide free specialized services, chaperone field trips to the museum, and, perhaps most importantly of all, get their family and friends to make donations.
So why are volunteers taken for granted by so many nonprofits? Here is my answer, via my experience as a volunteer coordinator, and I hope that it creates an “Aha!” moment for those who are in a position to make a change for the good.
For five years, I worked for a nonprofit residential facility that provided a wide range of programs and services to children who were born with severe eyesight impairments, as well as other physical and mental disabilities. My main job was as assistant to the VP of Development, who was one of the smartest and hardest working bosses I ever had. As a result, I always trusted her opinion and judgment in anything regarding business. But even she failed to place enough value on the volunteers and their tremendous contribution to our nonprofit’s success.
Eventually, I was handed the job of volunteer program coordinator in addition to my regular assistant responsibilities. And this is where my story begins.
There had not been a volunteer coordinator before me, just whoever was available. That meant no continuity, no bonding, and no real schedules. Not much community outreach to service clubs and organizations. No contact (until volunteers were needed). In other words, no real volunteer program, just a hit-and-miss, get who you can, when you can, and leave it at that.
What I established as the coordinator was a solid volunteer program and a rapport between myself and a lot of the wonderful, giving people who participated. I created a schedule for each event that listed the times and dates and duties of all jobs, so that the volunteers could pick and choose what they wanted to do and when. I’d follow up with an email confirming their choice and thanking them for signing up, plus a second thank-you after the event or task was completed.
I’d greet them with “Thank you for volunteering” when they arrived, and I made sure they understood their assignments and were taken care of by the supervising program manager, checking on them to ensure they were happy. Volunteers were sent birthday cards and Christmas cards—but my coup de grâce was a volunteer newsletter with photos, all about them and their personal and volunteer activities. It was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it. And after three or four years of steadily working toward a strong program, I had a solid reliable database of 150–250 active volunteers. For a medium-sized organization, that’s not too shabby.
But unfortunately, as I was speaking on the phone to the receptionist one day after I had left the nonprofit, she mentioned that she had been given the volunteer coordinator job and was very confused and overwhelmed by it. I was surprised and saddened. A receptionist would not have the time or freedom of movement to do that job. Dumping the volunteer coordinator job onto an already busy receptionist showed me just how little they thought of the volunteers’ role in the success of their nonprofit.
My answer as to why volunteers are not respected and valued more is this: People are often put last in any type of business. Have you ever gone into a store, café, or office where three or four employees are busy cleaning the floor, restocking the shelves, doing paperwork, or working on a computer while you, and maybe others, wait for them to assist you? I find this all the time. And my explanation is that those tasks are easier to do than relating to people. So, at the nonprofit where I worked, and I am sure at others, volunteers and even donors took second or third place to meetings, phone calls, and more meetings. Endless meetings—with other executives. Which are probably more interesting, better for the career, more comfortable, easier (like sitting in front of a computer screen), and more important than relating to people outside their job level.
So, that is my beef with nonprofits taking volunteers for granted. I think it comes down to a matter of staying in one’s comfort and self-interest zone. But I believe our capacity as organizations can be extended significantly through a respectful and energetic volunteer program that is seen as essential to how we run. And on the flip side, the lack of a well-run volunteer program is a terrible collection of many missed opportunities. Volunteers bring creative energy and connections as well as their time, and wasting any such resource on behalf of those we work for is a problem.
Judith Randall has worked in nonprofit for over 30 years for a variety of programs, ranging from problem adolescent counseling, to rare disease research fundraising, to visually impaired children and adults, to family counseling services. A native Californian, she retired to Bakersfield almost six years ago to be near her daughter and granddaughter.