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Getting a Return on Your Volunteers

GCN expert consultant, Cindy Cheatham ways in on the commonly asked question: How can I get a return from using volunteers in my organization?

Volunteers contributed more than 8 billion hours of time valued at more than $162 billion dollars in 2007. The commitment and innovation that comes from volunteerism is a key ingredient in the uniqueness of the American democratic system as observed by great thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville. Many very impactful nonprofits are volunteer-led and managed, and even large nonprofits like Girl Scouts and Junior Achievement run their organizations with volunteers as their primary human resource. With less than 10,000 staff, Girl Scouts recruits, trains and supports about 1M volunteers who reach about 2.5M youth members who benefit from their programs.

Keys to success in using volunteers are quite similar to those related to recruiting and developing highly performing staff. Like anything else, getting a return on your volunteers takes planning, training, performance management systems and a coordinated effort across the organization. Volunteers touch so many parts of an organization from administration, to program, to the broader community in their role as board members. They affect development, program outcomes, the nonprofits culture and its reputation.

Volunteers contributed more than 8 billion hours of time valued at more than $162 billion dollars in 2007.

Through my recent benchmarking of America’s leading charities practices for volunteerism, the most important place to start is for an organization to gain clarity on the purpose and role volunteers can play in their organization.

Organizations that are most effective in using volunteers have a senior champion and fairly wide buy-in across the organization who share the view that volunteers play a mission-critical role in their organization. Volunteers do not just provide low-cost labor (free, except for management supervision) but instead bring new perspectives, unique skill sets, an ability to serve as an advocate, potential donations (both direct and indirect through their influence on their employers or their network) and much more.

Volunteer Management is a maturing field of expertise. It pays for organizations to take time to identify and to invest in development of volunteer management practices. Some of the critical ones include:

- Matching volunteers with appropriate skill assignments
- Recognizing the contributions of volunteers
- Measuring the impact of volunteers
- Providing volunteers with training and professional development
- Training paid staff to work with volunteers

About 60% of charities according to a UPS-funded volunteer capacity study have someone with volunteer management in their responsibilities; 39% has someone who spends about half of more of their time managing volunteers. It takes investment to get a substantial return. Volunteer management roles are not the easiest to get funded, but many charities are successful in getting corporate grants or grants from foundations or individuals who support volunteerism to support this role. Many nonprofits are utilizing stipend volunteers such as students or AmeriCorps volunteers to set up or temporarily hold volunteer management roles. Some even recruit a volunteer to coordinate and lead volunteer management.

Volunteers can be mission critical and greatly enhance your organization’s capacity.

Many of the organizations who deploy volunteers into central programming roles such as Junior Achievement or Habitat for Humanity build their knowledge of the needs of volunteers into their program design. For example, Junior Achievement designs its programs so that an average corporate volunteer can jump in and provide a quality program without requiring a unique skill set or deep volunteer training. Habitat for Humanity has identified that a competency of construction managers that its affiliates should seek includes attributes of an effective volunteer coordinator.

Many people have the view that a volunteer should do the jobs that staff do not want to do, or instead, they have the attitude, "I’ve tried volunteers, and they just are not reliable."€ Yes, there will be volunteer attrition even with the best volunteer management program design and execution, but when done well, volunteers can be a critical and unique workforce that can be mission critical and greatly enhance your organization’s capacity.

If your organization has not done a good job of using volunteers but you can get buy-in to the critical role they can play, investments can pay off; however, they can systematically pay off if you manage the process right. If you are not committed, you will continue to be frustrated. Take the time to do an evaluation and to see if your organization can get a commitment to support volunteerism before you start.

Cindy Cheatham is VP of Consulting Services for the Georgia Center for Nonprofits

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