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To Heck with Volunteer Management: Think Like a Small Business Owner!

Do you know what’s wrong with volunteer programs these days? Well, if you ask me, it’s that a lot of people think like volunteer resources managers!

“What the heck? We ARE volunteer resources managers. Who else are we supposed to think like?”

Nobody else, if you think using tired and outdated methods for recruiting, managing and advocating for volunteers will continue to work for you.

Most volunteer management philosophy and practice are based on the principle that “Doing Good is Good Enough.” In informal, small-scale and short-term situations, it certainly can be. But most programs are dependent on much more daunting requirements: ongoing commitment, program justification, community oversight, and so forth. You just can’t run a successful volunteer program by the seat of your pants anymore.

A few years ago, a philanthropy publication ran the headline, “Acting Like a Business Because You Are a Business.” Their focus was regarding nonprofit organizations in general. The basic principle of recognizing that what you are doing is serious business applies as well to all segments within nonprofit management, including your volunteer resources. Your program is as subject to market forces, employment trends, fiscal needs and responsibility, public relations, accountability and other business concerns as any small corporation.

Unfortunately, however, you may not have had the same access to the training, information and tools that small businesses have. Volunteer management training aside, you, as a division manager for a nonprofit most likely have not had the guidance commensurate with your needs. Perhaps the only reason you haven’t is because you — and your leaders — may think “Volunteer = Good, Corporate/Business = Bad.” Poppycock. Business is business, and management is management. In fact, managing a nonprofit volunteer human resources department is harder than managing a small business human resource department. It lacks the considerable incentive of the paycheck. Shouldn’t you be learning more than a corporate HR director, not less?

Take the example of volunteer recruitment and compare it to business marketing. Volunteer program recruitment ads tend to address the organization’s needs, rather than the volunteers, which simply does not make sense if you have any knowledge about human nature. Restaurant ads don’t say, “We need you to come buy our food so we can have your money.” Other ads traffic in appealing to sentiment or guilt. Again, no restaurant ad says, “Don’t you think we need your money more than you do? Come eat here so our kids can go to college.” In the area of recruitment alone, a volunteer program can learn a lot from commercial practices.

The challenge in thinking like a small business owner is getting past your notions of what nonprofit and for-profit businesses do. The best way to deal with this is to start automatically translating business terms into “charityspeak.” If you take a business management class, start thinking “community impact” when you hear “profits” or “meaningful service” when you hear “salary.” You will quickly discover how little the two types of businesses differ.

A fringe benefit of going through the steps of thinking like a small business owner is the empowerment you, as the manager of volunteer resources, will discover. As long as people think “just a volunteer” and, as long as you have to continually scramble to prove that your program creates outcomes, you will face a poor organizational self-esteem. But, when you start using the time-honored and well-used practices of small business, your own techniques will improve and your confidence will grow.

Give it a try! Go to one of the many excellent small business development sites, such as the Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov) and Entrepreneur.com (http://www.entrepreneur.com) and try building a business  plan, doing market research, exploring “competitive pricing,” learning how to audit certain practices, and considering the benefits of a sound customer service philosophy.

Nan Hawthorne

About the Contributor: Nan Hawthorne

Nan Hawthorne is a professional journalist and content developer living in the Seattle area and has been a practitioner, trainer, consultant, and writer in the profession of volunteer resource management for many years. She came to international attention as founder and coordinator of the CyberVPM online forum, a pioneering effort in using the Internet for professional networking in the field of volunteer resource management. She is the founder of International Volunteer Managers Appreciation Day, held every November 1.
Hawthorne is the author of three training kits, “Recognizing Volunteers Right from the Start,” “Building Better Relationships with Volunteers,” and “Managing Volunteers in Record Time.” She has written over 150 articles on volunteer management. In addition, she has written articles for eSight Careers Network, specifically regarding competitive careers for those who are, like herself, blind or partially sighted.
Hawthorne has received recognition for her work through a Dufort Award for Excellence in Volunteer Management, as Nonprofit Nuts and Bolts “Favorite Internet Resource [provider] on Volunteer Management,” the Victim-Assistance Online Award for Excellence, LA Times Pick of the Day, as well as having a biography included in “Who’s Who in America.”
Hawthorne is best known for her “what works?” approach to developing and managing volunteer programs.

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