The gift of ‘unpaid staff’

Community resources plus training seen yielding productive, fulfilled volunteers.

By Ret Boney

Last summer, more than 350 Catholic teens from across the U.S. converged on the town of Greensboro, N.C., with five days to fill and a desire to help.

They quickly were placed among 21 local nonprofits and engaged in organized short-term projects designed to help the community, thanks primarily to the Volunteer Center of Greensboro.

“We are the connectors between the groups and the nonprofits,” says Janine Griffin, the center’s executive director.  “We hook them up and provide the publicity and management.  We try to take the burden off the nonprofits.”

For the more than 1.4 million nonprofits in the U.S., finding and keeping good volunteers is a challenge, but experts say there are places to turn for help.


Across the country, there are 375 volunteer centers like the one in Greensboro that together helped connect almost 2.5 million volunteers with almost 75,000 different agencies this year alone.

Those centers represent a tremendous resource for local nonprofits, says Griffin, whose single organization lists volunteer opportunities for about 150 area groups and has been in contact with more than 1,500 potential volunteers so far this year.

In addition to acting as a connector, the center houses a searchable database of volunteer opportunities and provides training on issues including using volunteers well, developing job descriptions for volunteers and understanding legal issues around using volunteers.

State associations of nonprofits are another place to go for information and resources.


As part of its training curriculum, for example, the Michigan Nonprofit Association in Lansing includes advice on setting up a program to recruit and retain volunteers, says Sam Singh, president and CEO.

His group, which has more than 1,000 member nonprofits, works with other statewide organizations to help nonprofits build and run strong programs.

But nonprofits can also look internally for volunteers, says Singh.

“We always say make sure you’re fundraising through your volunteers,” he says.  “But donors can be great ground for finding volunteers as well.”

That work is critical, he says, given the vital role volunteers play in the nonprofit sector.

For the average nonprofit in Michigan, for example, volunteers represent the equivalent of four full-time employees, says Singh, based on research his group conducted several years ago.

For Michigan’s 23,000 nonprofits, not including churches, that means a volunteer workforce equal to about 100,000 full-time employees.


Without its 210 volunteers, who last year logged a total of almost 9,000 hours, Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro would not be able to fulfill its mission of providing quality care to the more than 300 terminally-ill patients and their families it serves each day, says Jane Gibson, the group’s donor and community relations officer.

In addition to using the local volunteer center for recruiting, she says, Hospice has formed a speaker’s bureau to aid in spreading the word.

“They can tell a story that shows the impact of your nonprofit,” she says.  “And if that can include how a volunteer’s effort impacted them, that’s just about the best story you can tell.”

But finding volunteers is only the beginning.  Identifying work that benefits the nonprofit and is personally fulfilling for volunteers is critical.

That means developing a plan and infrastructure for your volunteer program, says Singh.

“It should be as sophisticated as their program for their employees, with job descriptions and set expectations,” he says.  “People often take their volunteers for granted.”

There’s a matching process involved to make sure volunteers play a role they are comfortable with that they find valuable, he says, noting that some people are comfortable doing menial tasks while others want to volunteer at a higher level.

Either way, the relationship should be a two-way fit, says Hospice’s Gibson.

“Your goal ought to be to always have work that meets the needs of the organization, rather than getting it turned around the other way,” she says.

And by helping volunteers understand specifically how their work impacts the organization, the importance of even the most basic tasks becomes evident, she says.

It’s also important to provide a variety of task options, along with the opportunity for volunteers to move from one to another when they feel the need for a change, says Gibson.

At Hospice, that organization and oversight come from Gibson and the group’s human resources director, who interviews and screens all “unpaid staff” just like she does employees.

Once on board, the volunteers are trained and managed by a team of volunteer coordinators who aim to make the experience mutually beneficial.

“We’re all trying to work smarter and volunteers help us do that,” says Gibson.  “But they won’t help you save time if you haven’t made the investment in nurturing them, training them and retaining them.”

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