A Lesson in Managing Volunteer Resources

Every nonprofit’s volunteer resources are precious and finite, no different than its financial resources.

volunteerBy Robert H. Isaacs

A number of years ago I had an “ah-ha” moment regarding an often overlooked aspect of nonprofit management. It was truly a lesson learned the hard way and, as with all such lessons, this was a lasting message about which I often remind myself and others.

At the time, I was the executive director of a large Reform synagogue. The congregation’s vice president had volunteered to run a fundraising auction. She had previously run a similar auction at her child’s private school and thought she knew what was involved. Whereas an army of volunteers (and parents who were very willing to spend freely) had helped her to create a successful school auction, she was unable to recruit an adequate number of volunteers to help handle the details of the congregation’s event. She then took over the entire event herself. For six months, this volunteer spent countless hours laboring for the auction and, when it was all over, she was exhausted, both mentally and physically.

The result: a moderately successful auction, but a valued leader who not only removed herself from consideration for the presidency, she left the board and withdrew from all further involvement in the congregation.

This may be an extreme example, but the episode taught a valuable lesson: Every nonprofit’s volunteer resources are precious and finite, no different than its financial resources. Nonprofits – especially synagogues – too often take volunteers for granted and think of volunteer resources as an inexhaustible source of human capital. Nothing could be further from the truth. Volunteer leaders need guidance, assistance, and supervision to prevent burn-out.

In harnessing the talent, enthusiasm and energy of volunteers, nonprofit leaders are simultaneously trying to maximize benefit to the organization and to provide a positive, even inspiring experience for their volunteers. If volunteers do not feel fulfilled and valued during and after the completion of their activities, they are likely to walk away.

In asking a volunteer either to perform a one-time task or to commit to a long-term project, we should consider several basic questions:

  • Is the project necessary and meaningful?
  • Would it be better performed by staff?
  • Have enough volunteers been recruited?
  • Is too much being asked of one volunteer?
  • Is the volunteer in charge delegating properly and being motivational?

In many ways, managing volunteers is a delicate balancing act. One has to bring to mind a sense of psychology and organizational dynamics. Every good coach has to know his/her players. No two volunteers are alike. Some will dive right in and, in a sense, will need to be restrained from overworking themselves. Others need to be motivated to put elbow grease into their work. The goal is to be able to have motivated volunteers who contribute ideas, energy, and time to the organization when they are needed. When it comes to fundraising and other volunteer-centric activities, taking a committee position can be a major commitment and may seem like the volunteer equivalent of a marathon. There must be appropriate expectations and support. No volunteer leader should feel overwhelmed and exhausted; they need to receive direction and maintain focus.

In hindsight, I see what could have been done differently regarding the role the vice president assumed. I could have suggested that the auction only take place if we had enough active volunteers. I could have explained more clearly the scope of the project she was taking on and how it would almost certainly be dependent on a good, dedicated team with a formal project plan.

It is a lesson I haven’t forgotten in my subsequent years of working for and with synagogues. The urge to volunteer stems from a deeply ingrained desire to feel needed and to give back. Without some degree of personal satisfaction and personal fulfillment, a volunteer will likely seek other opportunities. Each nonprofit depends on volunteers who feel rewarded for making a difference. The major lesson to remember is not only to treat volunteers with the respect, care, and consideration they most definitely deserve but also to provide the guidance, supervision, and structure they need. Never take any valuable volunteers for granted.

Robert H. Isaacs is the senior consultant and chief financial officer at the Evans Consulting Group.