Volunteers aren’t free

Support your volunteers

We fund what we value.

Your organization says it values its volunteers. But does it? Think carefully. Volunteers are not simply free labour. In fact, volunteers aren’t free at all.

To have an effective, dedicated volunteer workforce, you need to invest in them. That means training staff to manage them properly, training the volunteers in their roles and paying your volunteer engagement leader enough to attract the best talent.

According to Warren Buffet, an American financier, price is what you pay for something and value is what you get. Generally, the higher the price paid, the greater the value received.

I know, I know, the standard saying is “the best things in life are free”. Unfortunately, it’s just not true. All things have a price. Some things may not require actual money but they do have costs attached, whether in time, effort or emotion.

If you want an amazing volunteer program, you are going to have to finance it. Ensure the program is included in your organization’s budget.

According to Susan J. Ellis in her book From the Top Down, “Volunteers cannot fully and successfully contribute to an organization unless they receive visibility and management attention.” That means you need to regularly bring your volunteers and your program in front of the senior management and your board.

Then you need to educate and advocate. Explain to them volunteers aren’t free. Demonstrate the value the volunteer program brings to the organization, not just in cost savings – even though that may be the easiest thing to measure. Talk about what, in business circles, is called “goodwill”. As well as client satisfaction, brand recognition, good staff relations, systems and processes, knowledge and skills. The volunteer program, to a great extent, brings all of these to your organization. Goodwill is worth money.

The better trained your volunteers and the staff who deal with them are, the higher the level of client satisfaction and the more respected your brand will be. Therefore, volunteer and staff training need to be included in the budget.

If the leader of volunteers has a strong skill set, your systems and processes will run better, and your staff relations will be smoother. The organization needs to be willing to pay a premium to bring in highly-skilled leaders to run the program.

Push for room in the budget to cover appreciation gifts and events for your volunteers. They are part of what keep your volunteers bringing their skills and knowledge back, shift after shift.

Unfortunately, volunteers are often looked upon as cheap labour and not much else.

This attitude harms the organization and the causes it serves, without actually saving anything. They are essentially still paying for the program, but in a negative way. To take another phrase from the business world, they are paying “lost opportunity costs”. In other words, the impact and difference the organization could have made, had they invested financially in their volunteer program.

Volunteers aren’t free. They are valuable assets of your organization. As such, like any other asset, you need to be willing to invest in acquiring, training, managing and caring for them.

Like all good investments, the more you are willing to put into your volunteer program, the higher your return will be. And that can only make the world a better place.

Happy investing!

If you have concerns with your volunteer program, contact me at [email protected] and we’ll work out a solution.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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