Respecting Volunteers’ Time

time is moneyJewish communal organizations and synagogues recruit volunteers for a variety of assignments from serving on boards of directors to providing direct service to clients. Most agencies offer an orientation to the organization and some training for their volunteers; some require that volunteers complete an in-depth educational experience before beginning their assignments. Some nonprofits ask volunteers to commit to a specific number of hours per month, whereas other agencies only ask them to attend a specified number of meetings per year. The time commitment depends on the organization and the responsibilities assigned to the volunteer.

The well-organized nonprofit develops its volunteer assignments based on its clients’ needs and the volunteer’s talent, skills, and interests. A contract or letter of agreement between the nonprofit and the volunteer is the best way to clearly articulate the agency’s expectations and the volunteer’s commitment. Such a letter should include a description of the volunteer position and the specific services that are required by the organization; it should also specify the amount of time the volunteer is providing to the nonprofit, either per week or per month.

Volunteers for nonprofits fall into two major categories: those who provide direct service and those who serve on committees and the board. For example, a direct service volunteer agrees to assemble and repair walkers and wheelchairs at the Jewish home for the aged every Wednesday from 9:00-11:00 am. He knows that every Wednesday morning he has a commitment to be at the agency and that if he cannot be there, he has a responsibility to communicate with the staff person responsible for the workshop that morning.

At the same time, the organization has an obligation to respect the volunteer’s time and not schedule a last-minute meeting of the volunteers or volunteers and staff members for 11:00 on a Wednesday without checking with the volunteer in advance. Although last-minute meetings are part of the reality of most organizations, one should not assume that volunteers will be able or willing to change their schedules to accommodate the staff of the nonprofit organizations. Volunteers understand the need to be flexible in times of crisis. However, as a regular practice, advance planning is necessary so that the volunteer’s time is respected.

Volunteers who serve as members of boards of directors and other policy-setting groups spend much of their volunteer time in meetings. Although board meetings are often scheduled months in advance, there are times when planning committees and even boards call meetings on short notice to deal with pressing issues. Sometimes the discussions at these meetings, called in response to crisis, last for hours.

For example, it is not unusual for a Jewish community center board meeting that is called for two hours to continue for much longer. Sometimes the lengthy discussion is needed to resolve a difficult issue, but at other times board members find themselves stuck in the midst of an unending discussion that has lost its focus. They sit through the meeting because of their commitment to the organization, but with mounting frustration caused by the inability of the chair to keep to the agenda and the time schedule.

At other times, regularly scheduled meetings start late. For example, when a volunteer comes to the Jewish family service for a meeting at 2:00 PM, she does not expect to wait around a half-hour or forty-five minutes for the meeting to begin. She has set aside the allotted time, and if the meeting starts late and then runs overtime, the volunteer may be angered by the perceived lack of value placed on her time. She feels increasingly frustrated as she begins to think about all the things she could have been doing if she was not waiting around for the meeting to start.

The lack of respect shown to those who volunteer on behalf of the Jewish community has a negative impact far beyond the annoyance and anger they may feel at the moment. The frustrated board member or direct service volunteer is unlikely to continue volunteering and certainly will not recommend people, whom they know would be appropriate for the nonprofit, to volunteer their time. The agency and its leadership begins to earn a negative reputation because of how they use volunteers.

Nonprofits that engage volunteers should review their policies and practices to ensure that the time volunteers are involved in the organization is respected and they are not wasting time waiting around for meetings to begin or to end. Volunteers whose time is respected will not only be more satisfied by their experience and willing to donate more time but they will also be more active in recruiting others to volunteer for direct service or positions on the board of directors of the organizations.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.