Crossing the Line: Five Lessons From a Nonprofit Professional’s Excursion into Volunteerism

Crossing the Line: Five Lessons From a Nonprofit Professional’s Excursion into Volunteerism

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After ten years of working professionally in the nonprofit sector, I decided to take a short sabbatical to refocus and align my daily activities with my long-term professional goals.

But this article isn’t about that.  It’s about an unintended luxury of circumstance that embarking upon this journey has provided me:  time to volunteer.  This past month, I’ve had availability to volunteer in a serious way for causes that I love.

Over the past few weeks, I spent significant time on three diverse volunteer projects: I chaired an inter-synagogue planning committee for a community-wide Special Needs Inclusion Weekend and served on an administrative search committee for my children’s school. I also coordinate ongoing family and youth programming for my local synagogue as Programming Chair.

Of course, as a professional, I’ve regularly partnered closely with volunteers, and I’ve always made the effort to contribute to my community in lay leadership roles. Yet I never had the experience of a person whose primary involvement with the third sector is of a volunteer nature.   Here’s what I’ve learned from the volunteer experience about how nonprofits can most effectively harness the power of volunteers and how volunteers can get the most from their service:

Debunk the Misconception that Professionals Do the Work and Volunteers Help. It is understandable that professionals who are trained and paid for their service often arrive at the conclusion their work is “core” and volunteer work is “extra.”  In truth, however, 85% of nonprofits have no staff at all and are run solely by volunteers, according to the Council of Nonprofits.

Professionals may argue that it is easier for small nonprofits without paid staff to offer “real” opportunities to volunteers.  Probably true.  But with a little attention and creativity, large organizations that can afford to think strategically should be able to identify quality volunteer experiences, develop position descriptions, and match volunteers to the right job to more efficiently achieve their missions.  Added benefit: Delegating strategically to volunteers can ease the workloads of overextended employees and improve job satisfaction.

Maximize Volunteerism as a Cultivation Tool by Offering Rewarding, Interesting Work. In many established organizations, volunteerism is seen primarily as a means of cultivation, yet its scope is often limited to asking volunteers to solicit friends and attend board meetings. What a shame! Let’s give volunteers rewarding work so they feel inspired to step up as stakeholders!  Why do we expect volunteers to become donors or to up their gifts if their involvement has not been exciting, mind-expanding, and fun?  Rich volunteer experiences will not only provide volunteers with a feeling of inspiration but will offer valuable perspectives and skills.  Soliciting and attending meetings may be necessary, but that cannot be all if we expect for volunteerism to yield new and increased giving.

Want to Know How To Best Engage Your Volunteers While Simultaneously Achieving Your Organization’s Goals? Ask! At the end of the day, a volunteer does not owe the same level of accountability to an organization as does a professional. Professionals may argue that it’s easier to do the work on their own rather than “babysitting” a volunteer to do it.  They may also be weary that the task at hand might not appeal to the volunteer.

I’ve heard countless organizations urge constituents to “get involved.”  What does this vague call to arms actually mean?  Volunteer activities may demand creativity, brains, elbow grease, or a combination of all three.   Describe the options your organization can offer, but more importantly, a­sk the volunteer direct, specific questions regarding what they can contribute.  What time commitment can they give?  Would they prefer to be hands-on or to act as an advisor?  What type of work most excites them?

A friend recently told me she took on a large project at her child’s school.  Had she realized the time commitment involved, she would have opted for a more contained opportunity.  Asking these questions will best position professionals to provide a positive, productive experience and will position the volunteer to best support the organization.

Level of Involvement Corresponds Directly to Level of Satisfaction…Until the Point of Diminishing Returns. The professional must always respect the parameters that the volunteer sets. Keeping this in mind, I would still argue the more engaged the volunteer, the more inspired his or her experience.  He who toils most enjoys the fruits of his labor.

However, the satisfaction derived from volunteering does not continue endlessly. Beware the point of diminishing returns, which occurs when the volunteer is asked to do too much.

True story: In the midst of two substantial synagogue projects, a board member approached me to see if I’d run the annual dinner.  Asking me to take on another serious project marginalized the effort I put into the initial ones.

Being mindful not to take advantage of volunteers is an extension of the sacred tenet of thanking frequently and sincerely.

Keep Perspective – Volunteers Work for Free! Your volunteers work for free primarily because they love your organization. Bearing this in mind can help you appreciate them and what they bring to the table – and may even help you recharge your own batteries.