Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Dealing with Volunteers

I keep hearing the same story over and over from a number of different non profits. They put some time and effort into recruiting a volunteer. They pick the best candidate... who then vanishes without a trace. It's not uncommon for the key players in other small charity for advice. We've been for the most part in the same boat. I've been active on the Linked In volunteer recruitment platform for a year now and I do think that some experiences have made me wiser. But that doesn't mean I always get it right and I get people to stick around every time. I've never had people in key positions just take off without an explanation (not at my current non profit at least, the charity that I worked at before I established this one had different experiences), but I did have people resign. Some as early as the first week after being picked. There's a lot of reasons for it.  Many people get excited about the cause that speaks to them, but lack the needed skills, the creativity, the leadership that's required, the drive or the vision. Feeling excited about something is not good enough of a reason to get involved. Similarly, you soon learn that you can't accommodate everyone that wants in. And as nice it would be to have all the people with disability that applied carrying my  charity's mission (and having them would speak to donors no doubt) "having a disability" alone doesn't make them necessarily a good fit. So, how do you retain volunteers (and should you in the first place)?

1. Volunteers like structure. When we first got started, we were in the process of figuring out our business plan for the form 1023, 501(c)(3) filing. I soon noticed, that being in a setting that is pretty much in a flux is  outside of the comfort zone for most people. They were asking for procedures, policies ( such as a  anti-sexual harassment  policy) that I felt given the early stages of the organization was too early to think about. They wanted a more traditional, corporate setting. This seemed counter intuitive because part of the reason to bring these people on in the first place was exactly to develop these procedures and strategies and figure out what else is needed. But the advice I give anyone before they recruit anyone else- figure yourself out as much as you can to give them in turn as much as you can to work with. If you don't, chances are your volunteers will seek it anyway and -what happened to me- propose advanced plans,  elaborate chains of command, filling the blanks in the only way they know how and that gives them comfort.

2. Don't assume volunteers will care as much as you do. Non profits of course exist for the public benefit and don't have owners. The point is they must carry on the mission long after you're gone and in a way that is independent of what you'd like it for it to be and where you'd like to take it. That's why we have successions plans and elections - so that there is a supply of fresh blood and new ideas. That said, don't assume a recruited volunteer will care as much about a project you created as you do. Figuring out everything from scratch in a collaborative group environment where everyone has a voice is often a nice theory and theory only. You can't assume everyone will be involved to the same extent and therefore, I believe you should decide what kind of corporate setting you want to create and how  you'd like people to relate to each other.

3. Make tasks manageable. Not everyone is comfortable building things from nothing without much guidance and direction.  "Help us build this plan" or "Figure out that strategy" is something we've asked many people before and I suspect it made them panic- and combined with how broad the task was and how much work was needed, combined with the lack of structural support - because we didn't know any better - eventually scared them away. A non profit out of the box is more like a start up than an established corporation. For many people the role of giving form and shape to something will never be a good fit. The reason why I tell the story of our Creative Director and how well she's working out is because she is- that key word again- independent and creative enough to know how she needs to do things to make them work all by herself.  She fills in the blanks by using her best judgment, but that's a rare quality. I'm willing to give her a free hand and that's why it's working out and she has the good sense of not asking me things I don't know. For most other people you need to figure out what you them to do and when, as broken up as possible in a way that they can grasp.

4. Volunteering is not a job without paying. People usually have jobs that they are paid to do. If they don't they're on a lookout for one and as soon as they find one, they may distance themselves from your non profit. The Linked In for non profits program, by using the same mechanism they have for seeking employment essentially suggests that the two are at least functionally equivalent, it isn't. If  you work full time - volunteering at a non profit is not a second full time job you take on in the evenings and on the weekends. I've had a Board member try to carry on this scenario for about a month, he couldn't do it and then he quit completely. Our non profit, not his job.  And yes, the non profit needs the same type of work done as a paid employee would do, but assuming someone would apply themselves in the same way at both is not realistic. Also the goals of a "volunteer" job post and a paid post are entirely different. I do think Linked In should address this in their fee structure somehow. When you hire an employee, you recruit them, you sign a contract, you're done. The point of getting a volunteer on board is not simply picking one (maybe it's not just one, maybe it's two, three or four to do the one person job) but getting  them to stay on. This is where the pay-per-posting model doesn't really work in my opinion.

5. Volunteers will not always stay on. It's the nature of the beast, but learn to receive what they give you and move on. Focus on the tasks they complete to get you that inch further. Figure out a strategy that will allow you to replace one volunteer with another, so that you don't fall to pieces when one person drops off.

6. Don't nominate new Directors too quickly. Since you're not paying them, the position on your Board is the highest "honor" you can give to a volunteer. Not to imply of course that your entity is an amazing creation anyone should aspire to join, but when you do nominate them right off the bat,  you have nothing more to offer. And then you give it away even before they get to prove themselves. And remember: some people simply don't work out. Do you really want to go through whatever procedure you have in your bylaws to get rid of them later?

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