It's smart to invest in volunteers and volunteer programs

Investing in volunteers

We haven’t invested in volunteers—and it shows.

Volunteer programs are like the foundations of a house. They are put in place and then hidden away, ignored, neglected. Until they start to crumble. Then the lovely house they support (read: our community) starts to break up. Cracks appear in the walls. The floors start to slope. The windows break and the cold weather starts coming in. That's when people start scrambling.

First they try to patch the walls and replace the windows, but obviously that doesn't last long. Then they try to “Band-Aid” the foundations and shore them up a bit. They don't want to do a proper rehabilitation job as that's time-consuming and expensive.

They'd rather spend money on the things everyone sees, like carpets and appliances. Besides, most people don't know how to fix a foundation properly and professionals are expensive. It’s easier to just try and patch things up themselves. That, of course, just delays the inevitable. Finally, they shrug their shoulders and say “it’s a complex issue”.

But investing in volunteers makes a huge difference. People, even those in the social impact sector, forget that investing the time and money to maintain and improve our volunteer programs will keep everything else in our communities strong and stable.

Think about some of the serious social issues that we're facing right now. Many may have been a lot less serious if effort was put into our volunteer programs right from the beginning.

And yet, we still see organizations pulling money and staff from the volunteer programs to give to other program areas. It’s like taking money from maintaining that house foundation and putting it into new drywall because the walls are cracked.

OK. Enough complaining. What can we do about it?

I think the key to getting people to start investing in volunteers is education. Organizations, governments and the general public need to be constantly reminded of the vital role volunteers play in the safety, well-being and smooth running of our communities. The better they understand, the more likely it is that they will give more than just lip service to our volunteer programs.

We need to find ways to start measuring volunteers’ impact, not just their hours.

According to Peter Drucker, “that which gets measured gets managed”. And invested in.

How many formerly homeless people are off the streets? How many salmon streams are now rehabilitated? Tie those results directly to the volunteer program.

What would the organization’s or the project’s success rate be if volunteers weren't involved? We need to convince everyone to start investing in volunteers. Investing money, investing time and investing thought. To do that, we need to regularly show people the difference our programs make.

I'd like to put a challenge out there.

Pick one or more (or all) of the following items and act. We’ve talked enough.

• Form a group and lobby governments and funding sources for more money to be invested in volunteer programs.

• Think of and share ways to measure impact, and keep track of the impact volunteers are making in your organization.

• Speak to your board and executives at least once a year about the difference volunteers make and what they need to make an even bigger difference.

• Explain to everyone who will listen that volunteers aren’t free, and investing in volunteers equals investing in their community. Do it often enough that people know what you’re going to say before you open your mouth.

We, as leaders of volunteers, have a long way to go. But it’s not hopeless. We are an articulate, passionate and dedicated group of leaders.

If we start acting, we can change the world—one investor at a time.

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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