Volunteers

Great nonprofit volunteers are worth the cost.

Mutual value is what makes great nonprofit volunteers.

Volunteers are at the core of what nonprofits are.

The origin of the nonprofit sector is tied people voluntarily helping each other as neighbors and as entire communities.

Today, hundreds of countries around the world have codified volunteerism into the definition of a charitable organization.

The ability to enlist willing people in uncompensated labor for the common good is a unique and significant advantage for organizations dedicated to tackling the problems of our day not addressed by government or business.

For nearly all nonprofits, volunteerism starts at the top. While it is possible in most places to pay a nonprofits board, most of the 5 million nonprofit board members in the United States serve voluntarily, and without compensation. In fact, the very word “trustee,” used as an alternate to the title “director” in some nonprofits, speaks to the ethos of nonprofit leadership: to hold in trust for the public good.

See the webinar Nonprofit Volunteers, here.

[BTW: Where did the number of nonprofit board member’s come from? The Independent Sector, a national advocacy group for nonprofits, puts the number of nonprofits in 2019 at 1.6 million . Since nonprofits almost always have a minimum of three board members, then 1.6 million x 3 = 4.8 million. Considering so many have more than three board members, then 5 million is probably a conservative estimate of the number of nonprofit board members.]

To see how nonprofits can use Nonprofit.Courses to support their boards, click here.

While nonprofits are not required to have volunteers, the ability to enlist volunteers is a major, valuable advantage. Volunteers are an extremely valuable tool in bringing your mission to as many people as possible. Even if volunteers cannot be used for direct service delivery, such as when licensed professionals are required by law, volunteers can serve vital support roles in administrative tasks, maintenance duties and most importantly, revenue generation.

See Nonprofit.Courses videos, podcasts and document resources on volunteer management and training, here.

Volunteers bring so much more than meets the eye. The professional experience volunteers bring is often much more than a typical organization of similar size and budget could afford. Then there’s the unquantifiable life experience and enthusiasm for your mission. Volunteers provide a fresh perspective on what you do, bringing new eyes to old problems.

Great nonprofit volunteers come to your organization for a wide variety of reasons.

  1. Are they volunteering because your nonprofit helped them, or they received help from a similar organization?  
  2. Do they need to connect with others? Maybe they’re new to an area and want to build a network of friends with similar interests. Maybe they already have friends who volunteer with your nonprofit?
  3. Are they looking to protect something, or someone they love? While we usually think of “preservation” in environmental terms, your volunteer may feel the need to protect a vulnerable person like a child, a grandparent or a disabled person, or a culture or neighborhood.
  4. Is it expected? Some people volunteer because they’ve been raised in a family where volunteerism is expected. They also might feel that to maintain their social standing in their community, they need to volunteer.
  5. Is in based on faith? Many religions encourage assisting others, in or out of one’s faith community. It’s a powerful driver for volunteerism.

As much as volunteering aids the nonprofit and those it serves by willingly providing no-cost labor, its not a one-way street. That’s why its important to understand your volunteer motivations to help them get the most out of their experience, and thus help them help your mission.

And while a volunteer’s labor is free, nonprofits quickly find out that to maximize their volunteer’s assistance, they need to put in time and money, especially in areas such as…

Use screening for everyone’s protection.

Everyone deserves to be safe, and unfortunately, not everyone who volunteers, as well intended as they may be, is safe for your mission. Many municipalities, states/provinces or other government entities will provide background screening free of charge to nonprofits. Some organizations require the volunteer to pick up the cost. But even if you need to pay from your organization’s budget, consider the consequences if you omit this important step. Not screening can hurt anyone personally injured, and the irreparably damage nonprofit’s reputation.

Great nonprofit volunteers deserve insurance protection.

Screening implies liability, and liability points to insurance.

Many US states try to encourage volunteerism by limiting their liability for a volunteer’s actions while working for a nonprofit. But this may not be enough, depending on the state and the circumstances of services. It’s very important to understand your risks, and provide insurance when necessary. And for board members, this could be especially important, since most don’t want to put their personal future in jeopardy for doing good deeds.

Record keeping will help raise money, and more.

Next on your list should be a good database program. Why? So you can recognize volunteers for their service. So you can contact them easily. So you can show everyone how important volunteers are to your great work. Oh, and money. Database information is great share with funders so they see the community interest in your mission. Also, by using the same database as the fundraisers, you’ll be able to see whether your volunteers are donors, too.

While you can keep the records you want on a spreadsheet or create your own database, there are plenty of off-the-shelf programs for the task. In fact, you may already own the functionality you need that’s embedded into a fundraising gift processing program. Besides basic demographic data, like name, address, contact numbers and etc., consider tracking the volunteer’s hours.

To keep great nonprofit volunteers working, they need supplies.

Of course, you want your volunteers to be as effective as possible in supporting your mission. So, do you give them what they need to do their job? Providing supplies so volunteers can accomplish their assigned tasks is an often-overlooked, essential expense. Even if you expect a volunteer to bring their own supplies, make sure that you account for it so you can give them donation credit at year’s end. Your accounting program, like QuickBooks, is a great place to record the information.

Your volunteers don’t know what to do with those supplies unless you tell them. That brings us to another overlooked expense, staff time.  Providing leadership and guidance is key to getting the most out of your volunteers.

Some volunteers need access.

To do their job effectively, many volunteers, especially board members and fundraisers, need access to documents like financial statements, marketing material, reports on projects progress and more. There’s an entire class of software called “board portals” that can help with this, but simply providing access to a Google Drive folder can often be more than sufficient.

Start right.

Like anything else, to have an effective volunteer program, you need to get them started right. Get the FREE Nonprofit.Courses Volunteer Onboarding Checklist.

Summing it up.

Nonprofits and volunteers can have a mutually beneficial relationship that meets everyone’s goals and needs. Still, like any worthwhile mission focused initiative, it will cost time, and even some money to do it right. That investment could make the difference between effectiveness and frustration.


Don’t forget the most important resources for volunteers: New Course Alerts from Nonprofit.Courses. Each week you’ll see the latest Nonprofit.Courses content, plus events and other activities from our Content Experts. Sign up, now.

Published by

Matt Hugg

Matt's the president of Nonprofit.Courses. See his bio here.