If you’ve been involved in volunteer management for any length of time, you’ve inevitably come across people who just don’t get it. They either view volunteers as widgets who can be automatically plugged in to shore up the organizational need du jour, or they think volunteers are too much hassle to be worth it. If the decision makers in your organization feel this way, you’re not likely to get the support you need to run the terrific program you’ve dreamed of.
The One Big Barrier to Healthy Volunteerism
So what’s getting in the way? Why can’t your peers or leadership see the fantastic power and potential of community volunteers? I've been pondering this for a while, and I think the foundation of most resistance is fear. And, it's a big, but not impossible, barrier to overcome. Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of success -- we hear about how these get in the way of our personal development, why not our volunteer programs? Below are a few fear-based responses I’ve seen, and what you can do about them.
Four Fear-based Barriers to Embracing Volunteerism
1) Volunteers will sap the agency’s budget. -- Volunteer programs are certainly not free, so there’s no point in saying they are. On the flip side, the return on investment they generate can be significant. Help address this fear by being clear about the budget it takes (in both staff time and other costs). At the same time, share the research that says volunteers donate ten times more often than non-volunteers to an organization. Work with your development staff to be sure that volunteers are tracked and accounted for as donors. Also, be sure to track the in-kind resources they generate and share it.
2) Volunteers will sap the staff’s time. -- Again, volunteer programs are not free and need the attention of paid staff. However, the value they generate in supplementing the work of staff can be phenomenal. Help calm fears by being clear just how much staff time will be needed. Also, demonstrate their worth by estimating both the dollar value of the services volunteers add to the mix and the concrete outcomes they have helped bring about through their participation.
3) Volunteers will replace paid staff. -- Although volunteers have amazing skills, talents, and experience, they can almost never replace paid staff for a couple of reasons -- 1) most don’t have the time available to commit to the consistency a paid position requires, and 2) paid staff have to deal with organizational stress (i.e. bureaucracy) that volunteers simply won’t put up with; if they were willing, they would find a paying job in the nonprofit sector. There are differences between what motivates volunteers and what motivates staff. Volunteers want to make a difference in the world through partnership with an organization. Staff want to make a difference in the world as part of an organization. It’s a subtle line in the sand that most volunteers don’t want to cross.
To help allay any fears in this regard, make sure your volunteer program policies and procedures clearly delineate between the role of volunteers and the role of paid staff. Work with paid staff to identify projects and activities that have been on the back burner for too long and help them understand how volunteers can help bring the lagging project to fruition. As you see success, share it with others who are still resistant to working with volunteers.
4) We will lose control, and our organization will lose effectiveness. -- I have to say, I’m hard pressed to think of an organization that has suffered because they have utilized volunteers, even if ineffectively. Can you? To help assuage fears, talk with staff to better understand the specific areas they are most worried about. Handle those first. Then, make sure you have volunteer position descriptions that describe clear lines of supervision and directly relate to your organization’s mission and program’s outcome goals. Don’t allow volunteer performance issues to languish. Address them immediately. Be sure your volunteer policies and procedures clearly outline volunteer ethics rules (confidentiality, conflict of interest, communications, etc.) and how any transgressions will be addressed. Finally, consistently and concretely communicate what volunteers have accomplished.
Build Buy-In by Building Trust
Open, transparent communication and program management will help build trust and buy in. No one should have to guess how things are done in your shop. Make sure you have well-documented polices and procedures that are followed, communicate your successes often, and calmly and professionally address any issues right away. If you don’t have all your operational protocols in writing just yet, invite some of your biggest detractors to join you in developing, or at least reviewing and editing, them.
What barriers have you experienced? Could they be fear based?