Picking the best way to use volunteers

The best volunteer impact

One of my previous careers was as a benchwork joiner. That means I have been trained to build custom furniture.

During my training, an instructor gave us a piece of information that stuck with me. He said, “There are three attractive aspects to any job, but the customer can only pick two.”

The three aspects are fast turnaround time, high-quality work and low price. Think about it. If you want a really high-quality product or service and you want it fast, you’ll have to pay a premium for it. If you want a high-quality item for a low price, your job just won’t be a priority. If you want something low-priced and quickly, you lose out on quality.

Something similar can be said for volunteer programs. One of the aspects is the same—low cost. The other two are a large team and high impact. If you want a lot of volunteers who all make a real impact toward your mission, you will have to invest both time and money into developing and supporting them. If you want volunteers who make an impact, but can’t or don’t want to invest in them, you may find a few good ones, but not many. If you want a lot of volunteers but aren’t going to invest, the impact they’ll have in moving your mission forward will be low.

So, which two does your organization pick? I think you can figure out which scenario I recommend.

Let’s look a bit closer at each of these aspects.

Low cost

Social impact organizations, especially smaller ones, tend to have limited budgets and limited staff. Whether in time, emotional involvement or cold, hard cash building a large, impactful volunteer team, it takes investment—building personal relationships, supervising the team, putting on training and so on. Often, organizations feel they have to ask a staff member, whose main role is something else, to also take charge of the volunteers.

These people usually have little time or energy to spare to build relationships and create trust with the volunteers, so they fall back on building systems that save them time.

The position of leader of volunteers is a leadership position. In most organizations I’ve seen, the leader of volunteers is in charge of more people than anyone else in the organization except the CEO or executive director and yet, it's often felt necessary to resort to having someone do it off the corner of their desk with an almost non-existent budget.

Large team

I firmly believe in quality over quantity. That said, it is important to have enough volunteers to actually get things done. In a previous column (A sea of volunteers), I talked about the impact an organization could have if it had an almost unlimited supply of volunteers. How many more clients could it help, or beaches could it clean? What new programs could it initiate if it had more volunteers to help? What issues falling through the cracks could you now tackle? While it is vital to have good volunteers, not just warm bodies, even superstar volunteers can only accomplish so much in a given period of time. Most organizations need more than just a handful of volunteers, especially if they want to make a real impact.

High impact

This, of course, is the reason our organizations exist—to make an impact in our communities or the world. Having volunteers, even lots of them, doesn’t necessarily lead to impact. Piling up volunteer hours is great but if those hours are spent doing unimportant work, you won’t make much of a difference. To have impact, it’s important to have volunteers do work that matters. That takes thinking strategically and having a program that runs smoothly with as little red tape as possible. Volunteers need to know what they’re supposed to be doing, how to do it and why it matters. When volunteers are standing around wondering what to do, or doing “make-work” projects, you will gain hours but not impact.

Years ago, I volunteered at an art gallery. I applied, did the training then showed up for my first shift. The person I reported to looked at me blankly. She had no idea I was coming and had nothing for me to do. She gave me some make-work stuff. Fair enough; it was the first shift, obviously there was a communications mix-up. Except that happened on my second shift, too. When it happened on my third shift, I turned around and left.

One very capable and experienced volunteer (if I do say so myself!, eight hours and zero impact.

So, those are the three aspects of a volunteer program. Pick two.

As a leader of volunteers, I suspect you would make the same choice that I do. Will your board or executive, though? And if their choice is different than yours, what will you do? This is where you need to learn to advocate. Find ways to demonstrate the value of investing in the volunteer program.

The leaders of the organization want impact as much as you do. That’s not a hard sell. You need to show that having more volunteers will increase that impact, but only if those volunteers are invested in, with both time and money.

Help your organization pick the two aspects that will make a difference in the world. Good luck.

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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