02 October 2009

The New Volunteer Management

Nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers, but most CEOs do a poor job of managing them. As a result, more than one-third of those who volunteer one year do not donate their time the next year—at any nonprofit. That adds up to an estimated $38 billion in lost labor. To remedy this situation, nonprofit leaders must develop a more strategic approach to managing this overlooked and undervalued talent pool. The good news is that new waves of retiring baby boomers and energetic young people are ready to fill the gap.

Volunteers can do much more than stuff envelopes.
A few nonprofits have grasped this concept and are taking what we call a talent management approach—investing in the infrastructure to recruit, develop, place, recognize, and retain volunteer talent.


To capitalize on the opportunity presented by volunteer talent, nonprofit leaders need to expand their vision of volunteering, integrate volunteers into their strategic planning, and reinvent the way that their organizations support and manage volunteer talent.
If nonprofit leaders want highly skilled volunteers to come and stay, they need to expand their vision of volunteering by creating an experience that is meaningful for the volunteer, develops skills, demonstrates impact, and taps into volunteers’ abilities and interests. More people need to understand that people will make time to volunteer if they are stimulated and engaged. People do not volunteer because nonprofits do not provide them with volunteer opportunities that interest them enough to pull them away from their television sets.

Rethinking Work Roles.
To create compelling opportunities for volunteers, a nonprofit’s management team should begin by evaluating the degree to which important roles could be performed by volunteers. Some organizations are elevating the roles of volunteers and blurring the distinctions between paid and nonpaid staff .

Assigning Appropriate Tasks.
Nonprofits must assign volunteers jobs that make the most of their skills and talents. For example, marketing experts from the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche were preparing for a traditional volunteer project—taking stock of donated inventory at a thrift store operated by Catholic Charities USA. But the Deloitte workers saw ways the thrift store could employ new merchandising techniques and offered pro bono consulting services to help make the changes. The changes the Deloitte volunteers suggested produced strong results: Average monthly revenue at the store rose 20 percent. Not only do nonprofits get more value from using highly skilled volunteers to perform highly skilled functions, but these volunteers are also more likely to offer their services again.

Creating Bonding Experiences.
One of the best ways that nonprofits can engage volunteers is to create experiences that develop strong attachments between the volunteer and the organization. The March of Dimes, for example, is constantly thinking about how to channel the interest of a onetime volunteer into a more sustained commitment. A volunteer might walk in the March for Babies two years in a row and then drop out. That person has not necessarily lost her passion for helping babies, she just needs a new challenge and more opportunities to stay involved. To keep her engaged, the March of Dimes might ask her to speak with groups of expectant moms on the importance of folic acid and prenatal checkups. That could lead to her managing a local fundraising event or recruiting corporate sponsors. The March of Dimes has found that by increasing responsibility, tailoring assignments to volunteer interests, and providing training and in-person networking opportunities, they are able to hang on to more volunteers.

Supporting and Training Volunteers.
Nonprofits also need to support their volunteers. The American Cancer Society, for example, respects and cares for volunteers in the same manner that the organization cares for its own staff . Their chief talent officer ensures that staff and volunteers participate together in orientation and training classes and work together on important projects such as creating curriculum, delivering quality of life programs to cancer patients and their families, and serving as community health liaisons. The American Cancer Society also expects its staff to recruit and work with community volunteers, and it enforces this through performance reviews that measure volunteer engagement.

Using New Technology.
New technologies allow nonprofits to communicate with volunteers inexpensively and to build social networks that connect volunteers with one another and with the nonprofit. Organizations like VolunteerMatch and Zazengo have developed technology that makes it easy for volunteers to find opportunities based on their needs, interests, and skills. With this technology, volunteers no longer need to go to a Web site to search for opportunities; the right ones come to them. Technology also allows people to volunteer without having to leave their homes. One of our colleagues, for example, develops and maintains Web sites pro bono without leaving her home.

Developing Strategic Plans.
To make effective use of volunteer talent, nonprofit leaders must integrate volunteers into their strategic plans. In 2007, the leaders of 11 major nonprofit organizations and the authors of this article met to discuss ways to engage volunteers and laid out the ingredients for this process. Nonprofit participants such as Goodwill Industries, United Way of America, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America zeroed in on strategic planning as the most critical and neglected step in managing volunteers. By treating volunteers as the valuable resource they are, nonprofits get more challenging work done, reap the benefit of more volunteer hours, and incur fewer costs associated with having to replace lost volunteers each year.


Even with the best planning and management, nonprofits will always need to recruit new volunteers to support new or expanded programs and to replace those volunteers who inevitably stop coming. The most promising places for nonprofits to recruit new volunteer talent are among retired baby boomers, young people (millennials), businesses, and religious organizations.

A new wave of volunteer talent is building. Some nonprofit leaders will take advantage of this opportunity and exponentially grow their impact; the rest will be left behind trying to make do the old way.

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