Trend Spotter: Managing volunteers in your nonprofit organization

By Joanne G. Carman and Richard M. Clerkin

For many nonprofit organizations, volunteers play a pivotal role in the work that they do. Nonprofit organizations in North Carolina are using volunteers in a wide variety of roles and functions ranging from fundraising and governance to maintenance and construction.

While most nonprofits report engaging in sound volunteer management practices, such as using screening procedures to identify suitable volunteers and providing regular supervision, they still face some challenges when it comes to recruiting volunteers, training volunteers and finding the right “fit.”

The good news for nonprofit organizations in North Carolina is that many resources exist to help them to manage these challenges.

In the sixth survey of Trend Spotter, a special project of the Institute for Nonprofits at NC State University, we asked small North Carolina nonprofits with budgets under $600,000 to tell us about how they used volunteers to support the work that they do. Seventy-five nonprofit organizations completed the survey. Almost all of these organizations reported that they used volunteers to support the work they do.

The survey respondents described using volunteers in multiple ways. Fundraising, however, was by far the most frequent way these nonprofit organizations used volunteers. This finding echoes the theme of the 2012 Peer-to-Peer Event Fundraising Consumer Survey by Blackbaud which describes how peer-to-peer fundraising can be an effective tool for raising money and awareness for your nonprofit organization.

More than half of the survey respondents indicated they used volunteers to provide direct services or program support, education, marketing, and communication. More than one third of the survey respondents reported they used volunteers for policy making and governance functions, administration, and advocacy and lobbying efforts. Other uses ranged from using volunteers to assist with evaluation efforts to using volunteers to provide lawn care, maintenance services or construction.

Many of the survey respondents described how important their volunteers were to their organizations, with some indicating that they simply would not be able to provide the services they do without volunteers.

“We could not provide the services in our community without the commitment of our volunteer force!” says Sharon H. Osborne, executive director for Caldwell County Yokefellow.  “They are a valuable resource and it is important that we effectively and thoughtfully manage that resource.” Others echoed this sentiment, responding, “We absolutely know that we could not keep our doors open without them,” and “Our agency could not operate without them.”

Yet, the survey respondents described how using volunteers can be fraught with challenges. Recruiting volunteers was described as being the most challenging, with survey respondents describing how it is hard to find qualified people willing to donate their time. As one respondent noted, “With so many people working today it is difficult to find people who have the time or interest to work for free.”

Nonprofit organizations in rural areas, in particular, find this to be challenging. “We have learned that in a small rural county that it is very competitive to recruit and maintain volunteers because they are in very high demand,” says one executive director. “The same individuals usually are recruited by all of the agencies because of their willingness to devote their time to the effort.”

Managing the volunteers is also challenging. Respondents reported that finding the right “fit” is among the greatest challenges that they face. For some, this had to do with matching talented individuals with work that they would find meaningful and rewarding, matching the volunteer’s schedule with organization’s needs, and keeping the volunteers interested and engaged.

One respondent summed up these issues nicely, indicating the greatest challenge for this organization was “effectively utilizing their talents so that both the organization and volunteer are better off.” Others were more concerned with “wearing out” or “burning out” their dedicated volunteers.

Most of the Trend Spotters report they are following many of the best practices described in Volunteer Management Practices and Retention of Volunteers by Mark. A. Hagar and Jeffrey L. Brudney. They are screening the volunteers to make sure they are suitable. They have policies and procedures in place for the volunteers to follow, along with job descriptions. They report that they supervise and regularly communicate with the volunteers, and make a concerted effort to track important information, such as the number of volunteers, the number of hours they contribute, and the value of their contributions.

The Trend Spotters also reported that they take the time to recognize and acknowledge their contributions. They noted that volunteers need to be shown that they are appreciated and recognized, not only by the organization, but by the community as well.

Many of the survey respondents stressed the importance of providing training, getting to know the volunteers, and having good communication. The overall sentiment here was “the more time you spend up front training them, the better pay off.” Yet, almost one third of the organizations reported that they did not provide training or professional development for their volunteers, and even greater numbers reported that they did not provide training or professional development for the staff who work with volunteers.

Fortunately, there are many resources available to North Carolina nonprofit organizations. The North Carolina Association of Volunteer Administration offers a Basics in Volunteer Management course. The Metrolina Association of Volunteer Administrators provides professional development for administrators of volunteer programs in the Charlotte-metropolitan region. The North Carolina Society of Directors of Volunteer Services also provides professional development opportunities for nonprofit organizations working in health care.

Additionally, North Carolina State University also offers a Graduate Certificate in Volunteer Management and Administration.

Joanne G. Carman is an Associate Professor in the Political Science and Public Administration Department at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Her teaching and research focuses on program evaluation and nonprofit management, and she is the coordination of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

Richard M. Clerkin is an Associate Professor in the Public Administration Department and Interim Director of INPREE at NC State University. His teaching and research focuses on philanthropy and management, and he is director of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

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