The previous post to this column detailed the necessity of utilizing volunteers effectively in order for non profit organizations to serve their constituents during difficult financial periods. However, relying too heavily on unpaid talent can backfire spectacularly. Here are the ways non profit organizations can avoid the negative consequences of tapping in to volunteer manpower:
Set expectations. After the interview to determine the best match for volunteers concludes, it’s imperative to set out an action plan in writing to avoid any misunderstanding moving forward. To whom will the volunteer report? How often? Detail the deliverables and a rough timeline, and seek agreement on what both parties can expect from one another, such as access to board members, administrative staff or member/client information, and number of hours a volunteer can commit. The enthusiasm of even the most dedicated volunteer can wane if he or she is frustrated by poor communication.
Involve staff at key points in the project/task. Assigning volunteers projects that harness their passion will reap great rewards, but remember they do not have the same level of accountability to you as staff. A sudden shift in a volunteer’s priorities that takes them away from his or her commitment to you could leave you unaware of project status or items uncompleted. If someone on staff is involved you have a greater likelihood of continuing the momentum in case of emergency.
Encourage volunteers to approach their own contacts, but tread carefully with your organization’s long-term relationships. Several years ago, a small dance company was delighted that a board member expressed interest in securing a project-specific grant from a foundation that had funded the company for many years. During the meeting with the foundation the board member, a former technology saleswoman, presented an attitude of ‘I’m not leaving until I get a yes’ rather than engage in an appropriate, nuanced discussion. Thankfully the program officer could laugh off the approach as he had a good relationship with the executive director and respect for the organization.
If you proceed thoughtfully with your volunteer you should enjoy the lasting benefit of this win-win relationship. Interested in making a connection? Volunteer Houston is a great site to explore.