Why volunteers before how volunteers

December 20, 2011

Filed under: Strategic Planning,Volunteers — Tags: — jonathanpoisner @ 3:26 pm

It’s an age-old question in virtually any social impact organization – how we do get volunteers?

In my experience, if you start by answering that question, you’re getting off on the wrong foot.

Instead, you should first ask the question: why volunteers?

How you go about getting volunteers will greatly impact what types of volunteers you secure.    You may recruit lots in raw numbers, but not meet your needs.

So before designing the how, start with the why.

And to answer the why, I generally counsel asking two other questions in combination:

First, what do you most want out of your volunteers?

Second, what level of volunteer do you need?

Let’s take those questions in turn.

What do you most want out of your volunteers?

Here are four potential reasons I’ve experienced first-hand:

1. To do the work staff just can’t get around to doing (either back-end administration/fundraising or programmatic).   62.8 million adults volunteered almost 8.1 billion hours to local and national organizations in 2010 (Source: VolunteeringinAmerica.gov).  A well-designed volunteer program should get more work done than could be done with the staff time necessary to recruit the volunteers.

2. To be authentic voices.   Whether in fundraising or program, volunteers can speak authentically in ways that staff simply can’t.

3. As sources of local knowledge.  Particularly if your organization is trying to make a difference over a relatively large geography, volunteers are uniquely positioned to become your eyes and ears on the ground to help you make sure you deploy your resources in their geography in ways that will work.

4. As sources of specialized expertise.  Whether it be graphic design, accounting, information technology, or a dozen other areas, organizations can sometimes meet their needs for technical expertise through high-level volunteers that save them money.

If this is what you most want out of your volunteers, the second question is: what level of volunteer do you need?

My very crude short-hand is that there are three levels of volunteerism: participants, activity leaders, and organizational leaders.

Participants show up and do something for you.   Often just once, but sometimes repeatedly.   This is the bread and butter of many volunteer programs, particularly if they aim to generate lots of activity – tree plantings, stream cleanups, canvassing door-to-door, phone banks, and mailing parties are just a few  of the potential activities for which you need participants.

Activity leaders are the next level up: these volunteers are willing to lead all or part of some activity.  They may provide the training for participants, they may provide food for the fundraiser, or they may take responsibility to find 10 people for a phone bank, to cite just a few examples.

Organizational leaders take ownership for the long-term health of the group, overseeing either a series of activities or overall organizational health.  Board members are inherently organizational leaders if they’re doing their job.  But social impact organizations shouldn’t assume that only board members will fulfill organizational leadership roles.  Other volunteers can be cultivated and given non-board authority in ways that allow them to take on organizational leadership volunteering.

After answering these questions, it’s now appropriate to go back and set up a program that answers the how of volunteer recruitment.

If what you most need is local knowledge from people who’ll take organizational leadership, it argues for a very different volunteer program than if what you need most are activity participants who’ll do basic grunt work.

In a future blog entry or article, I’ll write more about effective volunteer recruitment programs that match up with the different why’s.

But no matter your skill-set at recruitment, you’ll go further in setting up your program if you start by answering the question why.

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