Volunteers Are Not Free Labor

Most nonprofit organizations are thrilled to have volunteers working with them. Unfortunately, not all understand that before they can reap the benefits of utilizing volunteers, they must first commit to providing them with a meaningful experience. Only by investing and committing to the person who is prepared to donate their time will the volunteer be an asset to the organization.

Developing a meaningful volunteer experience comes down to a few basic elements. The organization must begin the process by identifying the specific areas where the volunteer is needed. It is imperative that the functions that would be expected of the volunteer be identified and spelled out in detail. This is necessary to ensure clarity both for the staff and the volunteer as to what they will be doing for the agency.

A designated staff member in the organization should be responsible for the volunteers and for developing policies that guide the volunteers’ activities. These policies can include defining the volunteers’ role, the hours or days they are expected to work, the ways they will be guided and supervised and the process of evaluating their work.

An essential component to the process is drafting a letter of agreement that defines the volunteer’s commitment to the organization and stipulates the organization’s obligations to the volunteer. This agreement should also include how the nonprofit will fulfill its responsibilities to the volunteer. For example, if a Jewish Big Brother/Big Sister program at a Jewish Family Service or Jewish Community Center seeks volunteers to spend at least 8 hours a week with the children in the program then the agency must provide training, mentorship and ongoing supervision. It would be advisable to have a designated staff person who would monitor how the volunteer is doing with the children.

By providing training, guidance and supervision, the agency is making an investment in the volunteer and is enhancing the service it delivers to the beneficiaries. There are a variety of models for how this support can be implemented. Some agencies require completing a written report form and others rely on a verbal report discussed either at an individual supervisory session or in a group session with other volunteers. In addition, there should be an annual or semi-annual discussion and evaluation of their work both in terms of their performance as well, as the support they received from the agency.

This kind of support for volunteers should not be limited to positions providing a direct service to a client. Even when we are discussing volunteers who serve as members of the board of directors, it is essential for there to be a written definition of their role. The definition can serve the same function as a job description and it should let the volunteer know what is expected of them.

In the case of volunteer board members, once a year they should have the opportunity to speak with a member of the staff about their service to the organization and how they felt about their involvement. This is especially important when we are speaking about those members of the board who chair committees. They should have the opportunity to review and evaluate their participation in the committee and its effectiveness.

Having ongoing discussions with volunteers to elicit their feedback on their experiences can be critical to sustaining their commitment to the organization. Engaging them in this kind of reflective process can be invaluable and it is an opportunity to both evaluate their roles as well as to hear their feedback. By taking the time to listen to volunteer leaders staff can learn a great deal from someone who cares about the organization from the perspective of a volunteer.

Nonprofit organizations have to be prepared to invest in developing their volunteer programs and in maintaining them through ongoing work with the staff and the volunteers. A great deal of thought must go into providing the right kind of experience to keeps the volunteers engaged and involved. If you hear the expression, “Let a volunteer do it” this must always be followed by a thoughtful process for engaging and supporting the volunteers. It is only through thoughtful planning and implementation that a strong program can be developed and maintained in a nonprofit organization.

Remember that from the perspective of the volunteers, they want an experience that simultaneously enables them to help people, learn new things and develop new skills while they are providing a service to the community. When an organization invests in its volunteers the volunteers will better serve the agency and feel a deeper sense of accomplishment, which ultimately benefits everyone involved.

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 non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.