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What Every Organization Needs To Know Before Developing a Volunteer Program

Why do organizations seek volunteer help?  There is no more important question you can ask before you initiate a volunteer program at your organization.  Your answers will demonstrate your awareness of the potential of volunteers and define how well they will fit into and contribute to your success.

If you believe volunteers only make you look good to the community or are just a tradition, you will miss a great deal of the benefit a volunteer program can offer.  It is likely that you will need to create largely unnecessary work for them, underestimate the skills needed to contribute to your work and miss many of the sound volunteer management principles better understood in better designed programs.

Let’s start with the first very simple reason an organization, any organization, involves volunteers:

There is important work to be done

The “important work to be done” is the individual organization’s mission in the community.  You must start here.  Too many organizations and their volunteer resource managers operate from the point of view that volunteers are an end unto themselves.  They put volunteers first.  In reality the organization’s mission always comes first.  Volunteers, and paid staff as well, are there to serve that purpose, not the other way around.  Not only does putting volunteers first put the organization at risk by, for example, allowing very bad volunteers to interact with clients and the public.  It robs the organization.  You cannot use volunteers’ skills well unless you know what skills are needed.  To do what?  To do the important work that has to be done.

Once you identify the important work your organization is doing, you can begin to understand what role volunteers can play.

Volunteers are part of the best way to get that important work done

That is, they are much more than just free labor.  If you recruit for skills, you can find people who will be happy to offer them.  You simply could never pay for the talent and knowledge these volunteers want to give you.

They can bring material help through their extended contacts in your community.  They have access to resources from their employers or their own businesses.  They know journalists, civic leaders and philanthropists.  They know what the community beyond your four walls thinks about what you are doing.

They bring money.  Not only are volunteers generally devoted donors as well, they raise money for you just through their enthusiasm about what you do.  The public relations extends to people who, looking for a worthy destination for their money and time, see that you have a thriving volunteer program, evidence of wise use of their donations in a world where charities are not always trusted.

It is a mistake to underestimate the freshness a volunteer brings to an organization.  While staff can become inured to the routine, volunteers’ focus, commitment and enthusiasm can energize and refocus staff and make them happier and more productive.

Pay attention to the fact that we said “part of the best way.”  All-volunteer organizations, they are not always the most effective in solving community problems.  But because volunteers can bring in more and different skills and resources, having a volunteer program allows you to get your important work done more effectively.

If you understand the potential of a volunteer program, you will understand that strong and skillful leadership is a key ingredient.

Good volunteer management makes sure that important work gets done well

Effective volunteer management makes sure you do not waste time, money, resources, good will and people.   To make sure the organization makes best use of these valuable voluntary human resources, its leaders must recognize that it is that not just anyone can manage a volunteer program.  Volunteer resource management is a set of skills, tools and knowledge.  Hiring and supporting a professional volunteer resource manager is essential if you want to get the important work of your organization accomplished in the best possible way.

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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