Volunteers represent a huge asset and resource for nonprofits, but their potential and value often are untapped, underused and underappreciated.
That is the view of experts who say nonprofits can make more strategic and productive use of people, particularly those just ending or beginning their careers, who are willing to give their time and know-how to causes they care about.
First, though, nonprofits must change the way they think about and work with volunteers, experts say.
Developing volunteers’ full potential is particularly critical because nonprofits face growing stress from the plunging economy, rising demand for services, and chronic staff burnout and executive turnover.
“The landscape is no doubt full of opportunities and challenges,” says Robert Grimm, director of research and policy development for the Corporation for National and Community Service in Washington, D.C.
Kathy in Grand Rapids, Mich., says the opportunity for nonprofits to tap volunteers is greater than ever because the huge pool of aging Baby Boomers and younger members of Generations X and Y want to get involved, give back and make a difference.
“We’re in a point of transition,” she says.
A ‘leaky bucket’
Volunteerism is big business in the U.S., with nearly 61 million Americans age 16 and older volunteering in 2007, says the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Those volunteers gave 8.1 billion hours of service worth over $158 billion.
Yet an estimated 22 million volunteers, or over one in three Americans who volunteer, stopped volunteering between 2006 and 2007.
Nonprofits are losing volunteers because they fail to treat them as valuable assets, give them meaningful work or manage them well, says the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Nonprofits can reverse that trend and strengthen their organizations, Grimm says, by working to help Boomers and young adults alike put their know-how to work.
By 2020, for example, the number of American volunteers age 65 and older is expected to grow to over 13 million from fewer than nine million now, he says.
With older Americans typically volunteering roughly 100 hours a year, or twice as many hours as other volunteers, he says, “there’s great opportunity to tap that group for substantial volunteer opportunities.”
What’s more, he says, half of Boomers plan to work into their 70s, a number expected to grow in the face of the looming recession and the erosion of the capital markets.
And longer careers should translate into more volunteerism, he says.
“Working keeps you more engaged in your community,” he says. “It means you have more social networks and so are more likely to be invited to volunteer. And you’re more active, which means you tend to be healthier.”
Research also suggests that young people are “much more interested in service” than were past generations, Grimm says.
Teens are volunteering at much higher rates than two decades ago, for example, while the rate at which young people vote grew in the past two presidential elections, and a recent survey found a 25-year high in the belief among first-year college students in the importance of helping others, he says.
Breaking the mold
Agard of Grand Valley State University says sweeping generational changes among Americans pose big challenges and create big opportunities for nonprofits, although the sinking economy could delay the impact of those changes.
Boomers are retiring early, living longer and wanting to “stay engaged and keep their minds engaged, but not with as much responsibility,” she says.
Experts expect the departure of the Boomers will leave a “leadership deficit” at nonprofits but worry that, despite their enthusiasm, members of GenerationsX and Y may not be ready to plug the gap, Agard says.
“You have talent, experience and time on the one hand, and you have younger leadership and unmet needs on the other,” she says.
To help “bring the resources to the needs,” she says, nonprofits can recruit senior volunteers for roles that fully use their skills, while preparing younger staff leaders to “have the confidence to be in charge.”
Putting those older volunteers’ expertise to productive use will require hem “the freedom to develop their own volunteering,” Agard says.
“Look for good people and work with them to define their tasks,” she says. “You need to orient the volunteer to this new role, and help them think through the fact that they don’t want to be in charge.”
The sinking economy could delay the retirement of boomers, keeping the pool of senior volunteers smaller and creating pressure within nonprofits from younger leaders, Agard says.
But when those transitions do take place, she says, “the benefits could be phenomenal for nonprofits.”
To engage more volunteers and make their contribution more meaningful to them and more valuable to the organization, nonprofits must change the way they way they think about and manage volunteers, Grimm says.
“We have an outmoded conception of volunteering,” he says.
Nonprofits typically assign low-level tasks to volunteers, whose work is not considered valuable because they are not paid, he says.
Instead of treating volunteers as free menial labor, he says, and delegating their coordination to a receptionist or other rank-and-file employee, nonprofits should invest in a managerial position to mobilize and manage “talent,” both paid and unpaid.
Nonprofits already suffer from high staff turnover because they do a poor job managing paid staff, he says, so they are not likely to do a good job managing volunteers.
“We have to blur the lines between paid and unpaid staff and rethink the needs of the organization and how different talent, whether paid or unpaid or stipended, could address the organization’s needs,” he says.
In tough economic times, Grimm says, nonprofits may be reluctant to invest in a new position to mobilize and manage talent.
But improvement “doesn’t happen without any investment,” he says. “To get high returns out of talent, you’re going to have to invest.”
To better maximize their use of volunteers’ talents, Grimm says, nonprofits should conduct a cost-benefit analysis of their volunteer programs that measures the number of volunteers, the hours they contribute, the value of their contributed time, and the cost of training and managing them.
“You should look at the hours your volunteers are providing, and what would be the cost to you if the volunteers didn’t do those things, and how much money are you investing in that,” he says. “If it’s done well, you will find that the return on your investment is substantial. You’ve got to have the CEO or executive director recognize that this talent is valuable.”
Effective volunteer programs require “strong leadership from the top that articulates and recognizes that investing in talent mobilization is essential for the ultimate engagement of talent,” Grimm says.
Nonprofits also need to develop a process that “matches individuals’ skills and interests with assignments,” he says, and recognizes volunteers’ contributions.
In addition to listing donors and their gifts, for example, nonprofits’ annual reports should list volunteers and their contributions, he says.
Better engaging volunteers also can serve as an effective fund development strategy because volunteers who are invested in an organization are more likely to give money to it, he says.
Yet many more nonprofits have permanent staff members responsible for fundraising than permanent staff members responsible for managing talent, Grimm says.
And a survey five years ago found one-third of paid nonprofit staff whose responsibilities included volunteer engagement had never attended even one workshop or seminar on volunteer management.
The senior staff member responsible for managing talent at a nonprofit must work to help the organization “reimagine or reinvent the roles volunteers could play,” Grimm says. “You have to really create that strong attachment between those volunteers and your organization. And you have to find ways, not only to recognize what volunteers are doing, but to support them.”
Nonprofits generally do a poor job engaging and managing talent, he says.
“If you’re not doing a good job, and not considering ways to engage people or provide incentives, you’re going to have trouble keeping your talent, no matter what box you put them in,” he says.
“If you reinvent the idea of talent, and you do a good job of managing human capital,” he says, “then paid staff, stipended staff and volunteers are more likely to stay with your organization for a longer period.”