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Let’s be real, sometimes getting four rooms painted by a group of volunteers can cost more than help

January 31, 2020 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongPurpose
Should nonprofits be charging large volunteer groups? I expect that most of you would immediately reply “of course not!” But, hear me out.

Coordinating a large group of volunteers is not easy. And to clarify, there are nonprofits that rely on volunteers in order to provide a service, like food banks. That’s not what I am talking about here. Those nonprofit’s entire business model relies on the services provided by volunteers, and as such they usually have the appropriate staff in place and have structured their volunteer coordination efforts accordingly .

I’m talking about the nonprofits that don’t naturally lend themselves to volunteers. The nonprofits that don’t have a volunteer coordinator on staff. The nonprofits that are stretched thin to ensure that those they serve are receiving high quality care.

At those nonprofits, there isn’t a policy in place for volunteers. There isn’t an orientation pre-packaged and ready to go. There isn’t a volunteer job description or any kind of agreement that outlines what volunteers should be doing. There aren’t slots to fill or immediate needs that volunteers can help out with.

All of that is worked out on the spot by whichever staff person ends up drawing the short straw, and it’s left undocumented because that staff person then needs to work overtime to do their actual job.

You may think that this doesn’t apply to most nonprofits, but you’d be mistaken: there are more than 4,000+ nonprofits in Philadelphia. How many do you think have the funding and structure in place to have a fulltime volunteer coordinator on staff? It’s not anywhere close to 4,000, that’s for sure.

When folks reach out and want to help a nonprofit without a volunteer program in place, the nonprofit can feel guilty saying “no, we’re not equipped to provide you with a meaningful volunteer experience.”

The scarcity complex that most of us nonprofit workers have is real, and we’re worried that if we say no then we won’t ever have anyone offer us anything again. Even if it means shifting a project’s timeline, or buying supplies we hadn’t budgeted for until next quarter, or making up things for that group to do.

The guilt shifts to straight up fear when the person asking is in a position of power. The corporation you’re really hoping will sponsor your annual event wants to schedule a volunteer day. Or a major donor has a teenager who needs to complete community service hours for a class. Saying no means that you’re potentially going to upset them and lose their support in other areas.

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So you say yes, and then tie yourselves in knots to make sure the volunteers are accommodated.

You know what suffers when that happens? The clients the nonprofit serves. Because staff who are supposed to be running programs get pulled into the volunteer day, and away from their day-to-day tasks.

Or a fundraiser suddenly has to occupy a college student for 20 hours a week so the student will meet the requirements for their civic responsibility course. And ultimately, if you do that enough, you’re going to see a negative impact on those you serve.

Many of us have started to create guidelines to help avoid these situations. We come up with the list of things we do need volunteers for, and are clear about where and when we need those volunteers. Or we put rules in place that groups will be required to bring their own supplies. We set limits to the number of volunteers at one time, or the number of groups accommodated per month.

But what ends up happening more often than not is that we break our own rules out of fear of losing our supporters.

I recently saw a post online from a nonprofit worker who coordinated opportunities for a group of 60 volunteers across five different sites at the request of one of their corporate funders —and three weeks prior to the day, after all the logistics had been finalized, the company “decided to go a different route.”

That nonprofit worker lost countless hours of coordination and logistical planning. And the nonprofit, which had shuffled things around to accommodate that request, lost the promise of completed work by the volunteers.

Another organization I know is closed evenings, weekends, and holidays. And yet, without fail, they open the Saturday and Monday of MLK Day weekend to accommodate volunteer groups.

That’s a pre-scheduled three-day weekend that provides a much needed mental health respite for the nonprofit staff that is routinely scratched, sometimes at the last minute, in order to accommodate volunteer groups. Making up two whole days is almost impossible given the demand for their program, so the staff just go without those days off at all.

At what point should nonprofits consider charging groups to volunteer? Or for the supplies required to support their volunteer work? Or for canceled volunteer opportunities?

The time, effort, and materials that go into coordinating a successful volunteer day that is meaningful for the volunteers has tangible value. And that value is not always equal to the outcome — having four rooms painted by volunteers may not be equal to the money spent on staff time and supplies to make that day happen.

Corporations especially are seeking to provide volunteer opportunities for their staff. Why not build in a donation for every volunteer opportunity that corporation schedules, to help offset the costs to the nonprofit?

I hope that at the very least, reading this will encourage you to examine your own volunteering efforts. Questions that you can ask yourself include:

  • Are you providing a service that fills an identified need by a nonprofit?
  • Are you volunteering at the times that the nonprofit needs volunteers?
  • Have you considered making a donation to help ensure that the nonprofit has the funds they need to execute the logistics of volunteering?

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