Dear Non-profit Leadership — Volunteers Aren’t Free!

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There are myths that exist about volunteers. One widely believed myth is that volunteers are free. What I mean is that there are too many non-profit leaders that believe volunteers don’t come with any expenses or considerations that cost money. I’m here to tell you that’s incorrect. If you’re in a senior position at a non-profit, serve as a board member, are on an advisory committee or you’re a founder, please listen. By doing so, you may sidestep some landmines when planning events, making staffing decisions, and when expanding the scope of your operations.

Volunteers, while they give their time without an expectation of a paycheck, there’s often a cost associated with their ability to do so. Not to mention those that need attention that’ll impact your organization’s ability to effectively engage and manage these same volunteers. Think back to a time when you’ve volunteered. This may have been recently, or maybe this was years back. Regardless, I want you to walk yourself through the steps that you took for you to give your time.

First, you conducted researched based on your motivations. Once you found an organization and a volunteer opportunity that aligned with those motivations, you contacted them. Once registered to volunteer, you were provided information about your specific role, location, and point of contact. It’s not likely that you were in walking distance of this volunteer opportunity, so you probably drove or took public transportation. If you took public transportation then you had to pay bus, metro or an Uber fare. If you drove, the gas is at your expense, but you may have had to pay for parking if it’s not free to the public. You probably had to pay several dollars for street parking, or worse yet, the fee to park in a parking garage. In any major city, this could cost upwards of twenty dollars for all day parking. If the organization you’re serving provided a voucher, then they incurred the cost against their budget. So, you finally park, get connected with that organization’s staff member and get put to work. This position also came with a volunteer t-shirt and a name tag provided by the organization, which means that even if paid for in bulk, it cost maybe five to seven dollars for that organization per shirt. If this staffing role requires more than several hours, you may have had to buy lunch or dinner. If volunteering at a convention or event, you’re likely to pay at least ten dollars unless you brought your own food. If the organization you’re serving provided food, understand that this too is coming from their budget… Are you finally getting the picture?

The point I’m trying to illustrate is simply that volunteers either come with a cost that’s incurred by the organization, or out of the volunteer’s pocket. If out of that volunteer’s pocket, it could act as a barrier standing between them and serving your organization. If a volunteer can’t afford any of the costs, they’re not volunteering because it’s no longer accessible for them. Think of it in terms like this. In instances where the volunteer is incurring all these costs, you’re essentially making them spend money to volunteer. This doesn’t cover costs associated with providing them training, or the necessary support structure like staff, who facilitate providing orientation, training, supervision, and acknowledgement and all the communication before and after the event. There’s literally nothing about what I just described that’s free.

Now that I have your attention, I urge you to do the following;

  • Be cognizant of where you host events: The location of your event can have a huge impact on how successful you are when seeking volunteer support. If the location is several hours from your base of volunteer support, isn’t accessible using public transportation or requires volunteers to pay astronomical fees (like at a hotel or popular tourist attraction), you add barriers to your recruitment efforts. Avoid this by integrating your volunteer administrator or those who engage volunteers into the planning process. They’ll provide insight on where volunteers reside, or if volunteers will face a strain on their budget based on venue of opportunity.

These suggestions cost something, either time or actual monetary expenses. Regardless, by thinking through some of these, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by minimizing the out of pocket costs a volunteer pays just so they can give you their time. If you’re unsure of what would ease the costs on volunteers or remove some of these barriers, just ask. Work with your staff to have a volunteer town hall or brown bag meeting, where you genuinely listen to the feedback from those who serve. If a volunteer tells you that for them to give their time at an event, it costs them an arm and a leg, then maybe it’s time to strategize ways to fix this. However, this starts with asking questions.

But don’t stop with the volunteers. Ask your staff what barriers they experience when seeking volunteer support. They may surprise you by saying that they don’t have funding for a volunteer management database, or the proper IT equipment to facilitate communication. They may also tell you that they simply don’t have the time because volunteer coordination is a secondary role, that takes back burner on their primary duties, which would indicate that you need additional resources in way of staffing. Lastly, when it comes down to it, seek funding. Work with your development and fundraising staff to seek donors who understand these real costs. If they don’t understand these costs, educate them. By seeking funding for a volunteer management scheme, you set yourself up for success because you’ll have the monetary backing that pays for staff, IT equipment to facilitate communication, possibly a database to track and schedule volunteers, and an ability to acknowledge your volunteers with letters, awards and other ways to say “thanks.”

This is just scratching the surface on what can be done to support volunteers. I hope this plea serves as a wakeup call or reminder that volunteers aren’t free, and they often come at a price. Just like many things in life, you get what you pay for. Like a cheap tattoo, you’ll likely regret it.

Note: The thoughts and views expressed in this post reflect my personal views alone and are not those of Marriott International or any of its brands.

About the author: Jerome Tennille is the Manager of Volunteerism for Marriott International. Prior to that Jerome held the position of Senior Manager of Impact Analysis and Assessment for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a national organization that offers help, hope, and healing to all those grieving the death of a loved one serving in America’s armed forces. Jerome is a board of directors member of Peace Through Action USA and also serves on the PsychArmor Institute Advisory Committee for the School of Volunteers & Nonprofits. Jerome holds a Bachelor of Applied Science in operations management and a Master of Sustainability Leadership (MSL) from Arizona State University. Jerome is designated as Certified in Volunteer Administration (CVA) and is also a veteran of the US Navy.

(Originally posted at www.jerometennille.com)

Written by

Social Good advocate for CSR, Volunteer Engagement, and Sustainability. Veteran. Manager of Volunteerism at Marriott International. Visit www.jerometennille.com

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