volunteer programs
How to Generate Investment in Your Volunteer Program

In his recent Ted Talk, “The way we think about charity is dead wrong,” author and fundraiser Dan Pallotta raise some serious questions about our current mindset and the need for change.  He argues that a discriminatory belief system about nonprofits stunts our growth and capacity.  

What We Believe Keeps Volunteer Program Investment Down

Three ways we’ve been taught to think about how nonprofits should conduct business stood out for me, particularly because they also impact how we think about and resource our volunteer program investment.

  1. Nonprofit Compensation Isn’t Merited — Pallotta points to the herculean social problems nonprofits are attempting to fix, all while paying staff a small percentage of their private-sector peers.  I would argue that this pay disparity is even more deeply felt at the volunteer program level. Consider problems even defining the average pay grade for volunteer administrators, and the fact that they are underpaid when compared to other staff, all of which is troubling given the broad swath of their responsibilities for program development, volunteer recruitment and onboarding, risk management, in-kind resource generation, supervision, etc.  And, considering that volunteer coordinators, despite the fact that they are often responsible for a significant share of agency human resources — often far exceeding the number of paid staff FTEs — are rarely invited to the executive management table. How can we attract future talent to the volunteer management profession, if we don’t pay them equitable wages, even within our own sector?
  2. Time Should be Spent on Direct Service Not Program Development — Pallotta argues that nonprofits are discouraged from focusing staff attention on experimentation with new program models and allowing staff the breathing room to build effective programs to scale.  Volunteer programs are similarly stymied. Consider how volunteer leadership is so often tacked onto a long list of other staff duties, resulting in a lower priority status for volunteer program management. How can innovation happen when there simply isn’t time?
  3. Money Should be Spent on Direct Service, Not Advertising — Pallotta also noted that nonprofits aren’t really allowed to fully market their solutions in order to drive greater financial support for growth.  Again, in this respect, volunteer programs suffer mightily. Consider how an agency’s meager advertising budget is often unequally split between the fundraising department and the volunteer program, despite the fact that volunteers donate 10 times more than non-volunteers, representing a far greater potential for return on investment. If we rely solely on word of mouth and DIY volunteer recruitment efforts, without using more sophisticated marketing practices, can we really expect to reach the quality, committed citizenry we hope to engage? 

Finally, Pallotta argues that in the social sector “we confuse morality with frugality.”  Similarly, by promoting a “poverty mindset” in our volunteer programs we unwittingly discourage investment in the compensation, time, and advertising it realistically takes to connect with, prepare, and support high-impact volunteers.  And, we severely restrict our ability to scale the volunteer effort to something that can have real, sustained impact.

It’s Time for a Change

Volunteers are valuable human resources that can be game-changers for organizations who embrace and support them.  What would it mean for organizations to truly invest in the growth of volunteerism at their agencies?  How could the current limited capacity felt at many nonprofits be transformed into limitless possibility through an infused investment in the volunteer infrastructure?  If we truly believe volunteers are part of the solution, do we have the courage to take the first steps toward authentic change?  How will we involve volunteers themselves in this shift?  Who else can we enlist as our champions in these efforts?

In the current economic climate, and political battles on Capitol Hill, it’s hard to think beyond day-to-day survival.  It may feel counterintuitive to speak of growth when so many have fallen on hard times.  But, as leaders, we must. 

As volunteer program managers we must convince our agency leadership that an investment in volunteers can lead to long-term dividends for our constituents.  As executive managers, we need to find ways to elevate and support the volunteer function beyond a second class status.  As volunteer leaders, we need to continually advocate for the needs of our programs and ourselves as we work to support the causes we love.  It’s now more important than ever.