Volunteer service is a gift

nan prezzie 2I’ve worked for nonprofits most of my career which has afforded me a lot of experience with volunteering from a staff perspective. That experience taught me how critical volunteers are to an organization’s success, how wonderful great volunteers are to work with, and how challenging it is when the relationship between volunteers and staff gets strained.

Recently, I started helping out in the WordPress.com forums as an actual volunteer. It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve met great people and it gives me a chance to give back to the WordPress community. It has also given me a bit more insight into why some volunteer experiences are amazing for both the volunteers and the organization, and others–well not so much.

Volunteering is ultimately a gift. Yes, theatre ushers see the show for free, animal shelter volunteers sometimes get discount vet care for their own animals, or have adoption fees waived. Forum volunteers get experience and maybe a new client or two. Those perks are important, and can help volunteers feel appreciated, but ONLY if they are treated as gifts, not as payment.

Volunteers choose to serve because they believe in the mission of the organization, and want to do their part to make sure the project succeeds.  When a volunteer manager gives any indication that they believe they are paying their volunteers with perks the relationship changes in a fundamentally negative way.  If the perks a volunteer receives are payment, then their work is no longer a gift– it’s a transactional exchange. If the time and effort spent helping your organization is “paid in full” with a free coffee mug, or even a $30 theatre ticket, then it’s clear the work is not valued at all.

Once volunteers stop feeling valued, bad things happen.  The best case scenario is they stop volunteering.  They are suddenly too busy, or work gets in the way, or you just stop hearing from them.  The other options are worse.  A volunteer may keep showing up, but will consciously or subconsciously buy into your transactional mentality and start to give you work that is “worth” what you pay them, or start to insist you “pay” more.  She may also start to develop negative feelings about the work she does for you and maybe even the clients you serve.  You may even find that her frustration with you starts leaking into her interactions with the organization’s clients, or the general public.

On the other hand, when the time and effort a volunteer puts in is warmly received with genuine gratitude, when her opinions and ideas are considered, especially in regards to changes that affect her work, when she is publicly thanked for her contributions,  the “perks” simply serve to remind everyone that her work is important, that her contributions are valued, and that the time  she puts in is worth it.

Your Turn

Volunteers, we want to hear from you!  What could the organization you work for do to help you feel more valued?

Why don’t volunteers follow through?

Golf Swing

How is volunteer management like golf? It’s all about the follow through.
 (Photo credit: gibsonsgolfer)

I’ve asked myself this question more times than I can count.

Sometimes I ask it as a manager who works with dedicated volunteers–all of whom seem completely confident in their ability to live up to a commitment one moment and many of whom are absolutely “too busy” to follow through the next.

Sometimes I ask it as a volunteer who enthusiastically agrees to work in one meeting–only to sheepishly admit in the next meeting that the work is (still) not finished (or sometimes–started).

One very enthusiastic and capable volunteer explained this phenomena from her perspective in a way I’ll never forget. Continue reading

Engaging the Board of Trustees

How can we talk about strong nonprofit organizations and building relationships in the community without talking about Board Development?  Today, we remedy that oversight with a guest post from Erica Holthausen of Joppa Communications. I met Erica on Twitter and am so pleased to have her sharing her thoughts with us here today.  Welcome Erica!

Do you remember how you felt when you were first approached and asked to join the Board of Trustees? If you’re like me, you were probably pretty excited. After all, serving on the board is a great way not only to support an organization you care about, but to really make a difference – to have an impact.

Yeah, I remember that feeling. So why is it that six months later, we’re singing the blues with B.B. King?

The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away
You know you done me wrong baby
And you’ll be sorry someday

If you are singing the blues, you’re not alone. There are hundreds of books, workshops, websites, articles and consultants specifically dealing with board development. And, there are some truly excellent resources available that provide tips, hints, sample policies and tout the benefits of a consent agenda. They help you make the board more efficient. In other words, they strive to limit the amount of pain you must endure by limiting the amount of time you spend in a meeting.


Don’t get me wrong. I think many of the board development resources are incredibly valuable. I regularly use materials from BoardSource and always encourage my clients to adopt a consent agenda. But these tools miss a critical step. Just because a board is efficient, does not mean that it is engaged and passionate. Board development needs to do more than simply manage the pain.

Moving Beyond Pain Management

The next time you attend a board meeting, take a look around the room. Every person sitting at the table experienced that feeling of excitement when they were first asked to join the board. These are people who care about the organization and want to see it succeed. This is not a dysfunctional board. It’s just a bit bogged down in the day-to-day governance functions. Conversations revolve around finances, fundraising and fiduciary duties – often to the exclusion of passion, play and promise. The real question is how to reintroduce passion and play into board meetings.

I know, I know. I can hear a few of you groaning already. Passion and play at a board meeting? Is she serious?

Yes. I am.

Now before you start singing the blues again, let me explain. I’m not going to tell you to sit in a circle, hold hands and sing Kumbaya (unless that kind of experience would resonate with your board). What I am going to propose is that each board meeting start by reflecting on the mission of the organization and the impact it has in your community.

I know you’re a little skeptical, but we’ll start with an easy assignment. Before your next board meeting, ask the Chair to set aside 20 minutes to allow each trustee to share their reason for joining the board. If you do this, and everyone speaks up, I guarantee you that at least one other board member will inspire you with their story.

This is just one way of reflecting on the mission of the organization. But the options are limited only by your imagination! Here are a few more ideas to get you started:

  • Imagine what your community would look like if your organization fulfilled its mission. How would that impact the community? What would you see?
  • Tap into people’s strengths and passions. What does each individual trustee do well? How do they want to use their skills to help the organization?
  • Invite a staff member to share what they do for the organization and why they choose to work in the nonprofit sector.
  • Invite a program volunteer to come to a meeting and share their reasons for choosing to invest time with your organization.
  • Invite a program participant or service recipient to share their story at a board meeting – and always share thank you notes written to the organization.

The goal of these exercises is not only to reignite the passion of your trustees, but also to connect more deeply to the mission of the organization and gradually move the board’s attention from monitoring the past to creating the future. Of course, the goal is also to add a little more passion, play and promise into these meetings.

By the way, just because your board meetings are now energizing and fun doesn’t mean you have to stop listening to the blues. You just have to change the soundtrack. Maestro! A little B.B. King, please!

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As Principal of Joppa Communications, Erica Holthausen helps nonprofit organizations build a community of engaged and loyal supporters, enhance visibility, increase cause awareness and raise philanthropic support. A self-described idealist, she blogs regularly about sustainability, nature, historic preservation, conservation, community supported agriculture and fisheries, good food and, of course, nonprofit organizations. She resides in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

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Help your Community Help You

photo credit: ajdecandis

If your nonprofit organization is anything like the ones I’ve worked for, you pride yourself on making the most of every resource.  No one makes money go farther than you.  You shake the toner cartridge until printouts are no longer legible.  You are using the same file folders your predecessor bought in 1994.  You buy nothing you could possibly have donated.

And yet, as careful as you are with  financial resources, you may be overlooking another kind of resource that is just as important to the future success of your organization–social capital.

Do you care for your organization’s relationships as well as you care for her money?  Do you  engage the people who support your work in ways that strengthen the relationship rather than diminish it? Do you create meaningful opportunities for volunteers to get involved, and then give them the support they need to be successful?

Most organizations do not–and this oversight is costing them much more than they imagine.

One place to start using volunteers more effectively is in your marketing efforts.  Word-of-mouth has always been a powerful way to build an organization’s support base,  social media just makes the method stronger.  As a staff person you can only do so much to take advantage of this marketing method–but volunteers can help a lot.

You don’t have to do it alone

If you like the idea of integrating your volunteers and donors into your marketing mechanisms, but aren’t sure how to begin, I can help.

Amplify your message is a free, seven(ish)-week e-course all about recruiting your organization’s volunteers and donors as mini-megaphones to spread the word about your great work.

In our time together we’ll cover:

  • Overcoming objections (from you and your volunteers)
  • Giving volunteers the information, training and support they need to be successful
  • How to say thank-you early and often
  • What to do when things go off course
  • Bonus Q&A messages based on specific questions from you and your fellow course members

Sounds good, Sign me up!

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