As someone who has volunteered in a variety of capacities since childhood (thanks to my awesome parents), I have had a lot of positive experiences, and a very select few negative or neutral experiences volunteering. In college, I took a class that discussed the nature of civic engagement where we looked at how volunteering can be good or bad depending on the way it is done. Now, as a staff member of a nonprofit program which depends on amazing volunteers to serve our clients well, I have had the pleasure of supervising a number of incredible, over-qualified individuals that donate their time to serve. However, volunteers are extremely busy with their own lives, and may not realize that volunteers are also a cost to an organization. The volunteer-nonprofit relationship can be precarious at times because volunteers may be unhappy with the need of the nonprofit, or the nonprofit may feel that the volunteer is not fulfilling the role expectations, but cannot say anything since the volunteer is donating time and we do not want to offend.
So, I put together a list of five things that I think every organization that utilizes volunteers wants to say, but can’t adequately communicate due to time constraint or the aforementioned precarious relationship.
1. We’re Grateful for you.
That’s number 1 because it is the most significant. Without volunteers, the efficacy of the nonprofit sector would be drastically diminished. Because of volunteers, our small program team of six people is able to serve many women well, and stay sane.
2. If you sign up, show up. When you show up, be prepared and on time.
I know this is a change of tone, but it is placed second because it is so important! I cannot emphasize this enough: if an individual does not show up for a time they had signed up to volunteer, it would have been better for them to not sign up at all! When we have no-shows or last minute call outs, staff have to scramble since the work (whatever that may be) still needs to occur. Obviously, life happens. However, when it is a regular occurrence it can cause problems.
3. We value your input
Back to the positive, speak your mind! (In a respectful manner, to the right people, at the right time.) But really, sometimes people that are working day in and day out do not see how a process or program could be improved. Having an outside voice give suggestions can help the clients of the nonprofit, who are really why we are all there to begin with.
Also, if you do not like what you are doing, don’t just stop, voice that and ask for a new assignment. In any nonprofit, there are typically multiple roles that a volunteer can fill. If you believe in the mission- find one that suits you!
4. Respect boundaries
There may be times that you feel your expertise is not being used, something is not being done for a client that should be, or that there are silly rules in place. However, it is likely that there is more to the story. So, feel free to ask. However, still respect the boundaries put in place. An example would be if an organization asks that you not give gifts to clients, don’t do it “just this once”, unless it has been cleared through appropriate channels.
5. Know what you need
At the end of the day, nonprofits need volunteers. We want to serve you, too! If there is a moment in your volunteer experience where you are having a difficult time, don’t just try to “tough it out” (that’s how burnout occurs). Volunteering won’t always be fun, but it should be a positive experience. Communicate with us and let us know how we can make your experience even better.
P.S. I know this post sounds a little pretentious or lecturing, sorry. But, it would’ve been helpful for me to read years ago, so hopefully it will be beneficial to a few people.