Engaging Volunteers (1): A Volunteer Story

This blog post kicks off a six-part series in which I explore volunteer engagement and management.

It’s a critical topic for nonprofits that need to capture the attention and availability of more unemployed and underemployed workers willing to volunteer time and energy.

But the match of nonprofits and able volunteers won’t work if volunteer talent is not effectively managed.

I was excited to be a first-time volunteer at a special holiday party for children and their families hit hard by the economy. When I arrived at the banquet hall I was stunned by the number of buses already in the parking lot and the constant stream of bus loads arriving from churches and community groups. I entered the fray and squeezed my way through the crowd to find volunteer registration.

The volunteer table was chaos central. I introduced myself, explained I had signed up to serve the dinner shift, and asked about the check-in process. After shuffling paper and unable to find the sign-in sheet, one of the volunteers handed me a volunteer button, pointed to the dining hall, and told me to just go in and help out.

The room was set up with rows of tables to accommodate hundreds of people, and there seemed to be hundreds more milling about. Two long buffet stations were set up at one end of the banquet room lined with volunteers dishing out turkey, ham, stuffing, potatoes, green beans, rolls & butter; other volunteers ran back and forth to the kitchen to replenish the serving stations. More volunteers cleared dishes while groups of guests waited to be seated. I attached myself to a volunteer who had worked the event before, then quickly learned the ropes to make myself useful. Fortunately there were more than enough – even too many – volunteers to help out.

At the end of my shift, I thanked my fellow volunteer for taking me under her wing. There was no official “sign out” of volunteers, so I just waved to the people working the volunteer table and left the banquet hall. It was my first and last time at the event.

As a long time volunteer involved in a variety of organizations, I was surprised by the lack of advance communications, on-site instructions, and post-event acknowledgment encouraging volunteers to return. The good news is the holiday party attracts an abundance of volunteers; the bad news is not all of them return. Note: the event is organized and hosted through the generosity of a private company, not by a nonprofit. Nonetheless, it illustrates that volunteer engagement requires more than a “if-you-build-it-they-will-come” approach.

“Sadly, most nonprofits do not view their volunteers as strategic assets and have not developed ways to take full advantage of them.”
– excerpt from Stanford Social Innovation Review article “The New Volunteer Workforce.”

I hope you’ll join me in this “Engaging Volunteer” series that includes:

Throughout this special series, I invite you to share your experience as a volunteer. Comments from nonprofit managers are also welcome.

9 Comments

  • Volunteer in Ghana May 20, 2011 Reply

    I agree that some things probably could be done differently and to greater effect

  • Susan S Belin May 10, 2010 Reply

    Thanks for sharing your valuable volunteer engagement insight, Sybil. So important to so many non-profits; so many that utilize them so inefficiently and ineffectively.
    Look forward to discussing with you. Susan

  • Sybil May 10, 2010 Reply

    Margaret, thanks for sharing your research!

  • Margaret Roller May 10, 2010 Reply

    Great topic. I have worked in the research area of volunteer satisfaction for 10+ years. Last year, my client at the American Cancer Society & I published an article on a research mode experiment we ran with community-level volunteers. You can read it at http://bit.ly/9EM56G. I’ll be interested to read your series, particularly with respect to the volunteer-staff connection. We have a lot of research data in that arena, I’ll be interested on your take.

  • Sybil May 6, 2010 Reply

    @ Andrea: while this series doesn’t specifically address the issue of using volunteers vs. paid staff, I’ll definitely look into it … stay tuned.
    @ Janet: thanks for sharing your volunteer story and engagement tips. By not being inclusive, that board lost a valuable resource – you!
    @ Chris & Lenny (+ alll of you who emailed me): thanks for your interest and affirming the importance of this topic.

  • Lenny Diamond May 4, 2010 Reply

    A very timely choice, Sybil which our organization will definitely learn and benefit from. looking forward to seeing your perspective and ideas. Thanks again for taking this on!!

  • Janet Tucker May 4, 2010 Reply

    I think the lack of communication and organization will certainly turn off volunteers. They need to have a specific assignment, perhaps one that they have expressed interest in through a conversation prior to the event. The Volunteer Story unfortunately happens in all types of situations.
    In my own experience, I was asked to serve on a board that was comprised of volunteers who had been on the board for a long time. They didn’t particularly want new people on the board. I was not given an assignment for a big event, and when I arrived, I was not welcomed by the group. I guess you could say that they were set in their ways, and really weren’t interested in working with new members. After the fourth meeting I resigned; not that it mattered.
    I had a very good experience as a treasurer on another board; I was engaged with staff and chairs of committees. I felt that I was contributing by communicating the financial status of the organization to a broader group of volunteers.
    An absolute must with volunteers is a big thank you.
    A personally written note beats an e-mail. Gifts are fine if you can afford them, but most volunteers feel good about being acknowledged with a thank you.

  • Andrea Weiss May 4, 2010 Reply

    Sybil, I hope you will tackle the issue that most would prefer to ignore — when to use volunteers rather than paid staff. For many years volunteering was the role of “housewives” in search of meaningful service or an escape from the usual routine. The volunteer role helped keep women out of the workforce and played a signficant part in depressing women’s wages when they did enter the workforce. The impact is still felt today. Now, in difficult economic times, with millions of people unemployed or underemployed, organizations squeezed for revenue have increased their use of volunteers in lieu of hiring. Many organizations have volunteers working side by side with paid staff and resentment is building on both sides. Guiding principles, clear policies, and deft management are essential but the path to righteousness here is not clear. It’s time to recognize the importance and impact of these issues and address them head on.

  • Chris Bonney May 4, 2010 Reply

    Good topic. Looking forward to more of this series.

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