Q&A: The Volunteer Question

Susan Ellis

Susan J. Ellis is President of Energize, Inc., a training, consulting, and publishing firm that specializes in volunteerism. In 2000 she co-founded the field’s first online journal, e-Volunteerism. She is the author or co-author of twelve books, including From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success and The Volunteer Recruitment (and Membership Development) Book, and has written more than 120 articles on volunteer management. “I can actually summarize my entire career in this field by one sentence,” she told us. “I take individuals and organizations from being relatively thoughtless about volunteers to being thoughtful.” We spoke to her in 2009.

Q: Volunteerism is all the rage right now. Yet we’ve talked to many social service agencies that seem resistant to the idea of developing volunteer programs. They say it’s too much work for too little benefit. 
A: I think this is an issue of two things. It’s an issue of vision and it’s an issue of will. Vision begins with understanding that it is possible to proactively think through what the goals and objectives are for involving volunteers and then strategically implementing them. Volunteers can do anything. If an agency wants to shy away from having volunteers work with kids, then have them work on media, marketing, or with families.

It absolutely takes coordination and that’s what gets us past the vision to the will. There is no easy way to do it; it’s hard, it’s time-consuming. The question isn’t, How does an organization do this easily? The question is, How do they make their goal important enough that the resources they put into it are cost-effective for what they get out of it?

No one is saying you have to start a program with 700 volunteers the first month. Start small, pick one unit of your facility, aim for five quality volunteers and see what happens. Go online, pull up the names of organizations similar to yours, see if they have volunteer involvement and see what they do. That’s how you do it; it’s a legitimate form of industrial spying.

Q: So, if an agency is on the fence about starting a volunteer program, what would help them decide?
A: I think what you say is, Isn’t there anything that you wish you could do either for your clients or your organization where the skill set is a completely different one than what your people have, or it’s not a full-time job but you’d love to add it in? If you can’t think of anything, then you’re not being creative. Also, there is a high correlation between people who volunteer and give money. Remind them of that.

Q: Everybody supports the notion of volunteerism in general, but in fact some volunteer programs work well and others don’t. What’s the difference between them?
A: There was a study put out in 2004 by the Urban Institute that looked at the capacity of volunteer involvement of the nation’s charities and faith communities. It concluded that the number one factor that was consistent throughout any successful volunteer program was that somebody was designated to be in charge of it. In other words, intentional thought, time and attention given to volunteers is absolutely crucial. So, that’s number one. Successful programs look like they’re consciously run and integrated into the organization.

The second thing that success looks like is when an organization has a wide variety of things that volunteers can choose to do. It’s perfectly legitimate if there are some things that require being there every single Monday morning, but an agency also needs things someone can do at home, or deliver virtually or whenever they have time. So, variety and flexibility to be able to meet people on their own terms, when they can give time, is essential. I genuinely and seriously believe that there is no skill in the world that you cannot get donated. But, if you need that skill at 11:45 on a Tuesday, you may not find it.

One of the things you learn from a volunteer program is that it’s not necessarily a goal to treat volunteers like paid staff, but it is a goal to treat paid staff the way we treat volunteers. The volunteer approach makes for much happier workers — with things like choice, flexibility and thank you’s. Organizations that are successful in involving volunteers tend to be more pleasant places to be.

Q: Clearly, some organizations do a good job with their volunteer programs, while others don’t. What goes wrong? 
A: One of the biggest mistakes is superimposing the responsibility of managing volunteers onto an existing staff member without taking any other duties away from them. [Using volunteers] is actually harder than hiring more people, because volunteers, by definition, come in a few hours at a time. The coordinating factor — not just the recruiting, but working with the volunteers — takes a lot. If an agency wants to start a program they need to find somebody in the organization who is interested in doing it, and free them from a few things so they can focus on it for a couple months. They should test pilot the volunteer program first [with an existing staff as the coordinator] so they don’t need to hire anybody new. When you’re starting out and you’re trying to designate someone to get this off the ground, the biggest issue is, do they want to do it? You’ve got to have somebody who’s enthusiastic; it doesn’t matter if it’s a secretary or a social worker. Find somebody who is going to be genuine with people and it will make all the difference in the world.

Q: What do you think of the idea of replacing paid staff with volunteers? 
A: It’s impossible to lay off staff and replace them with volunteers, because of the time factor. When you pay someone you have the right — because of the paycheck — to command their time. You are saying, ‘I will pay you, and for that salary you will be here five days a week.’ That’s exactly the opposite of the relationship with a volunteer, who can say, ‘I’d like to work two hours a week, if you can utilize me.’ If you lay off a staffer who gave you 35 hours a week, you literally may need 15 volunteers to fill that work, and that then requires a supervisor to take care of those 15 people.

When cutbacks occur, an agency should sit down with all the job descriptions of the paid staff-not only the staff who were let go, but the ones still there — and determine the most essential elements of all the positions. Then take the most essential elements out of the job descriptions of the staff still there, add the essential elements from the job descriptions of the people that had to be let go, and redesign the current staff job descriptions. What’s left is the remaining work — the stuff that’s left from the current job descriptions that staff won’t have time to do because they’re picking up the essentials from the people who left. What is left is a whole list of things that could be done by volunteers.

Q: We’re hearing about volunteers doing lobbying, putting together marketing campaigns, and otherwise using professional skills to do higher-level tasks. What other creative ways are nonprofits using volunteers?
A: People often only think about volunteers at the two extremes — they’re either on the board, or they’re doing low-level jobs. The reality is that people can be asked to donate their professional skills, and they do. Let’s say you are a small agency and you need a new brochure. Recruit a marketing person who does brochure design to sit down with you and advise you, so it’s a short-term project. You’re asking that person to donate their expertise to build the capacity of your organization. Capacity-building includes things like bringing people in to look at how you’re using your computer system, what software you need. It might be somebody who does surveying, questionnaires, or gathers client feedback for you.

One of the things that differentiates this kind of high-level volunteering is that it requires an executive to be involved. If you’re developing an outreach strategy for client development, you’ve got to talk to whoever’s in charge of casework or marketing, etc. It’s a double-edged sword though, because one of the problems with [recruiting professionals] is that it makes the assumption that people who have certain skills ought to want to do them as volunteers. Some of them do, and often people are happy to do them. But we can’t get to a point where we make the lawyer — who adores painting kids faces at carnivals — feel guilty because that’s what he wants to do on a Saturday. Volunteering is what people do avocationally.

Q: Faith communities are considered good sources for volunteers, but some agencies haven’t had luck building relationships with them. What can you suggest to them? 
A: Faith communities are often misperceived as places bursting with people who want to do things. Number one, many of them don’t. Just because you want to worship does not mean you want to work. Secondly, many of them are already engaged in a whole lot of things, so you’re adding one more cause, which may not be their cause. The real issue is that most faith communities are struggling themselves to have people be active in the life of their congregation, so when an agency comes in and says, ‘Help us,’ they’re diverting them.

If an agency doesn’t have a volunteer coordinator, and goes to a faith community and asks for help, I’m not surprised that nothing is happening. They’re asking that faith community to do the whole project — figure it out, recruit people, and there’s really no support from the organization. If you want to involve a faith community, what you can say is, We would like to have an activity every Sunday afternoon (or Wednesday evening, or whatever); would you adopt one Sunday afternoon?

Something could be a Sunday school project, so you’re giving them something that they can integrate into something they’re already doing. If they can double up and have a good Sunday school program and do something for you, that becomes appealing. Similarly, an agency can say, we would like to do something special for the members of your congregation who have just had kids go away to college and may be at a point in their lives where they might want to do something with youth. So you’re giving them an angle that meets their needs as a faith community as well as your needs.

Q: What are your thoughts about mentoring, which is the classic volunteer program in child-serving agencies?
A: Mentoring, I think, has really lost its meaning. It’s actually harder to recruit people to be mentors because it is so vague. What does it mean; do you have to stay with the kid until they’re married? You can match someone with a young person, based on what he or she says they are interested in doing. If they really love cars, get an auto mechanic to come talk with them and spend some time working on cars to see if they like it. Volunteers can do outings, really expand a kid’s worldview and help them explore resources that are available to them that they never had a chance to experience. Volunteers can also help them understand how to find work, even part-time work like delivering pizza, and really mentor them through that process. The other thing that bothers me about mentoring is that it’s always spoken of as a 1-to-1 relationship. For some kids, that’s more than they can take. There’s nothing that says you can’t have a volunteer with three kids. It can be less pressure for the volunteer and more fun for the kids.

Q: Are there programs that are just not suited to volunteers?
A: If no one at an agency wants volunteers and they’re not willing to spend time on them, then they shouldn’t start. An organization that says, ‘We have no money, let’s do everything with volunteers’ — they shouldn’t have a volunteer program, either.

But in terms of the kind of agency that can have a successful volunteer program, there’s no limit. Do you realize that 80% of our nation’s firefighting force is volunteer, and we rely on volunteers to run emergency rescue? If we can have volunteers that we trust to do that, why not have them in child-serving agencies? If an agency has a genuine desire to serve their clients in the widest possible way, and they welcome different points of view and varieties of people, they’re going to be successful with volunteers.

Q: How does the experience of using AmeriCorps volunteers differ from using non-AmeriCorps volunteers?
A: With AmeriCorps volunteers, a couple of things can make a big difference. First, how thoughtfully did an agency create the assignment the AmeriCorps person is filling? There are some AmeriCorps people who are thrown to the wind and told to do something that nobody in the agency knows how to do. [In that case] if an agency is lucky and they get a really self-motivated, bright AmeriCorps person, they might be successful, but it’s not because the agency helped them. An agency that has very clear goals, and a supervisor, can help an AmeriCorps person to be successful.

Q: Some agencies pay consultants to start their programs — does that work? 
A: An agency would never say, We’re going to get completely new software, but we’re not going to look at it. We’re going to have someone else tell us what’s best, they’re going to install it, they’re going to leave and we’re going to say our work is finished. That would never happen. The same applies to volunteer programs.

Q: Hiring a coordinator might be difficult for a small organization, though.
A: I do think there is a model whereby a few small organizations in the same geographic area and with some commonalities might be able to jointly hire someone who can run a volunteer program. For instance, they could do joint recruiting. In that case, the staff member (let’s say it’s one person for three agencies) needs to be part of the team at all three agencies. If they are seen as an outsider, it won’t work, because they need to be involved in the discussion of why volunteers are needed at the agency.

And it’s not just a recruiting problem, it’s an integration problem — how do you get volunteers to effectively work in the agency? Perhaps someone is onsite one day at one agency, and another day at another place. There would still need to be someone to be in charge of the volunteers when the coordinator isn’t there. Places like residential treatment centers that are staffed 24 hours a day sometimes want volunteers in the evening, when the person who coordinates volunteers isn’t around. In that case, what works is to have a volunteer who is the shift leader who everybody knows is the person who takes questions and reports to the volunteer coordinator. Those models are out there.

This interview was conducted by Youth Catalytics research associate Mindi Wisman. It has been edited for brevity.