We have all had someone smile at us in a difficult situation and say ”It’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity. “ Arizona nonprofits have suffered through two difficult years, publicly hosted fund raising events were scuttled. And the volunteer workforce we used to complete many of our tasks stayed home, because they worried about contact with the virus. And the “Great Resignation” has made filling low paying job openings even more difficult. But I promise this is a wonderful opportunity to rethink how we do business.
Over the last decade or more volunteers at nonprofits have more often than not been relegated to low skill opportunities, sorting food, serving food, cleanup, or distributing items to those in need. And board membership has often entailed little more than showing up for monthly meetings, and making a small donation once a year. We seem to have forgotten that most nonprofits got their start because someone saw a need and voluntarily decided to fill it. The Red Cross, St Mary’s Food Bank, The Salvation Army, and The Society of St Vincent de Paul, and many more nonprofits were started and successfully run by volunteers long before Executive Directors were even an Idea.
Now is the time to reconnect more completely with the communities we serve and support by seeking volunteers with skills and training that far exceed those of the potential pool in the workforce. And at the same time we need to insist that our board members share the skills that made them successful with the nonprofit they have offered to help. Their direct involvement in completing the nonprofits mission is the only way the board can make informed decisions about the nonprofits future.
At the Poore Free Medical Clinic in Flagstaff getting help from volunteers when we started was critical. And not just the doctors and nurses who provided the services we offered. At the outset dealing with the malpractice issue was critical so that doctors could offer their time without risking a lawsuit. Thanks to a lawyer on the board, who mainly practiced criminal law, and another volunteer who had a lot of nonprofit/ government experience we successfully applied for and received Federal protection from that fear. The odds against hired nonprofit staff having that kind of expertise are very long at best.
At another point it became obvious that we needed a mechanism to track and put a value on the services we were providing. These numbers where necessary for almost every grant we wanted to apply for. A former patient turned volunteer, came to the rescue and found a simple plan of coding that allowed doctors to simply enter the coding on the intake card and then it was entered into a program that could generate a report very quickly. Once again hired staff would very likely struggled to develop such a system.
These are not isolated examples, volunteers have and can provide leadership and talents paid staff just does not have. Volunteers also have unique experience and connections they can bring to the table. People who are successful in their careers are often looking for opportunities to give back, but are not real interested in sorting food two or three days a week. Sadly, my experience is that even, the latest craze, nonprofits that help place volunteers, seem at a loss when it comes to placing volunteers who have specialized talents. Admittedly, finding a volunteer who can fill a job that has real responsibilities and opportunities to show their talents is going to be a new experience to most nonprofit leaders. And will probably involve more time and effort, but the rewards of having somebody in a position of responsibility who is there only because they want to see your mission completed are certainly worth it.
We have also learned during the pandemic that many of these tasks can be completed remotely and during flexible hours, making them even more attractive to volunteers both retired and those holding full or part time jobs. It’s time to think creatively about how to separate tasks so that you are flexible enough to adjust the jobs to fit a volunteer’s willingness to commit their time and energy.
Having your board and more volunteers actively working to help you complete your mission has additional benefits. Not only does it reduce your overhead, and thus create funds for those employees you really want and need to keep, it also sends a cadre of ambassadors, your new volunteers, back into your community who have a vested interest in your nonprofit succeeding. and chances are a good many of their contacts are excellent candidates to expand your volunteer force. These people will spread the story of your nonprofit, because they know how your nonprofit works and are proud to an integral part of what you are doing.
The first place to start is with the volunteers you currently have. Spend some time with them, find out how and why they got involved and ask about what they do or did in the “real world”. Not only might you find a hidden gem, but just by taking the time to get to know them you’ll have developed a more loyal and dedicated team member. Do the same with your board members, start by sharing the things you need help with, if they are really interested in your mission they’ll offer to help. Finally, challenge some of those “volunteer placement outfits” to find you people to fit the slots you have created. The gig economy is a reality, it time to make it work for us.
Reprioritizing volunteerism is not going to be simple to start, but with a little added effort the long term rewards will be well worth it. Not only will it help you fil your staffing needs it will strengthen your connection to the community you want to support you. Adding high quality volunteers to solve real talent needs is an opportunity to take a giant step towards completing your mission now and in the future.
Bill Packard and his wife, Barbara have spent the last two decades as volunteers revitalizing or starting nonprofits, including thrift stores, food pantries and a free medical clinic. And are authors of the GOING FULL CIRCLE books . They can be reached @ firstname.lastname@example.org