Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Can a volunteer become a future position?

One of the main problems I hear smaller non profits bring up when dealing with volunteers is making them understand that their position will not become a paying job down the line. There was no money, there is no money and there won't be any money. And I wonder if that is not a mistake. Now, don't get me wrong- I'm not talking about all the people who apply for volunteering positions thinking that they can talk their way into an employment. I too have been in situations where a "Volunteer Web Designer" ended up asking for $200 to create a web design. By the same token, I don't think there's anything wrong with talking and thinking about the future. And just like the volunteers we recruited for something often end up finding their strengths in something else, what started as a volunteering position may over time and organically become something else. It's my belief that any nonprofit as part of its mission of helping whomever or whatever it was formed to help needs to grow to help more and do more and in the process- react and adapt to a changing landscape. I also don't think it's wrong for a nonprofit to have a long time goal of having the resources needed to carry out its mission better and for me, in the long run - being more efficient means having professional staff. People perform better and feel better if they can afford to dedicate themselves fully to the cause, without having paying job and clients competing for their time and attention. There are positions that will always be not compensated of course. Board members are traditionally not paid for their time served on the Board where they guide the organization, establish direction and policy (but when they're involved in a different capacity as well, being officers which can be taxing and demanding that may be a different story). We will also rely on student volunteers for your basic grass roots, community and campus connection efforts. But what about everyone else? What if there's someone you really want to keep?
My Creative Director hates asking people to work for free, primarily because in her own time she was approached about a number of "portfolio building opportunities". Assuming that people will work for free, to their fullest, sacrifice their time and energy passing over gigs that pay just because you have an attractive mission does sound a bit like you're taking them for granted. She approached me with the idea that we both agreed worked better than simply having an endless stream of volunteers coming in and drooping off. I was straight with my team. Give me six months to a year of your time. It's my goal for it to be in a position where I'm able to hire people and I pay them. If it happens and we establish full time positions you'll be the first ones we offer it too. If in the meantime you find a job on your own and you wish to part ways with us, that's fine. If a year passes and nothing has changed then we have failed as organization. I believe that creating a "cut-off" point in time for yourself is also necessary for your own mental hygiene. A time has to come where you look at your efforts and where you are and it either working or not. If it isn't you must ask yourself at one point, how much more can you dedicate to it and are you equipped to fix it. Otherwise you'll continue to repeat the same patterns with no hope in sight. I'm not saying you need to have the most accomplished organization in your field but work towards some signs of stability, so that it doesn't rely on you to go on. I also think that talking to people honestly about where you want to take your organization and what you hope to accomplish structurally gives them hope and motivation, shows them you have a vision and we're all working towards something together. Some of it feels personal to me- because I've been with organizations where I felt I like I had an uncompensated full time job with them. I was doing things that they didn't even care I did, but I was taking upon myself to create those opportunities for them, because quite frankly no one else had time to. And as many of my volunteers today I wanted to turn it into something permanent, but they were never in a condition well enough to get there. Shame, too, because I would have given it my all. I volunteered for a few years and when I couldn't carry on having a job without pay I left. I felt I did it for as long as I could- and there was never any hope or any discussion of turning things around. They liked it me for as long as I was there, when they left they didn't mind either. Something was missing. That's why without falsely promising something that I can't deliver I have honest discussions with my volunteers. I don't like where we are- and so I will try to change it over time. I'll do what I need to do to make it grow. And for me it's a scary yet exciting adventure. And those who volunteered with us today are embarking on a journey with us and what they do and their input has actual effect on what it shapes out to be. But one thing I'll never do is expect them to volunteer forever or assume that they would because they have spare time to do so. Limit their time and limit yours. For their benefit and yours.

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