Just out of high school, I still hadn’t shaken my teenage awkwardness and lack of confidence. Though a fire to change the world burned bright within, it burned aimlessly. I was unsure how or where to direct this passion and energy until I started volunteering. I cooked meals for the families of chronically ill children, built habitats for tigers, and served at soup kitchens. But throughout these experiences I was also growing. I learned to communicate my passion with clarity, practiced public speaking, and gained skills in marketing, fundraising, and more.
These experiences also taught me about the needs of my community and, within a few years, I launched my own nonprofit organization with a mission to inspire others to serve their community and help all of the wonderful causes I’d come to know and love.
I volunteered as the organization’s President and de facto Director for eight years and throughout that entire time, I knew the cause was depending on me. But I needed to make a living so I could pay my bills, and I so worked a number of jobs while running the organization on the side, from data entry, to quality control for clinical studies, to bartender. Everyone else in the organization was in the same position; we all volunteered, working extraordinarily hard out of love for the cause, but most couldn’t put in more than ten or so hours per week to progress it.
The organization stagnated. We were never able to serve more than a small handful of people or causes at a time, though the need was still great and demand for our help was growing. I knew we were going to have to invest more in building capacity as an organization if we were going to be able to meet this need, so I rallied our board of directors and we developed a business plan, bit the bullet, and hired our first paid team member.
Our first hire ever was a Volunteer Coordinator. Within months of bringing him onto the team, even as a part-time contractor, I watched as our ability to take on more grew, and along with our increased capacity came increased effectiveness, efficiency, and most importantly, impact. Within a few years, our board voted to bring on a paid Executive Director and salaried staff person: Me.
As soon as we were able to devote this full-time support to the cause, we saw a lot of changes. Our annual budget tripled within three years, and more importantly, so did the number of people were were able to serve. I knew, despite the fact that our organization was based on an ideal of volunteer leadership, that having paid staff at the helm was ultimately enabling us to have an even bigger impact, which is the whole purpose of nonprofits anyway. What’s more, having professional, full-time staff meant we were able to recruit and manage even more volunteers, which further increased our capacity to change our community.
I realized we didn’t have to — nor should we — choose between volunteers and paid staff or contractors. To have the kind of impact we craved, we needed both.
The first year or so I served as staff, we continued to utilize the help of part-time contractors in roles of volunteer program support and web development. Within a year or two, our Volunteer Coordinator role transitioned from contract basis to staff as well. Inevitably, thanks to the improving infrastructure we’d established, we were able to bring on a few more staff. We also continue to use contractors for special projects such as high-level web development on an as-needed basis; in these cases, these contractors support and amplify our ability to effectively use volunteers.
Volunteers are the lifeblood of a majority of nonprofit organizations. Nationwide, about 4 out of 5 nonprofits rely on volunteers to operate and help them tackle important issues like homelessness, education, and more. Volunteers can amplify a cause’s impact, but they are not “free”. It takes resources to make it all happen. To recruit, supervise, train, and successfully retain volunteers, you need trained staff devoting consistent time and professional skills to manage them well, otherwise, you will lose them.
The sad fact is that few organizations are investing sufficiently in a volunteer program. Out of the approximately 1,200 organizations surveyed for VolunteerPro’s 2018 Volunteer Management Progress Report, two-thirds report their staff has no certifications or training related to volunteer resource management, nearly a tenth of organizations had no budget at all for supporting a volunteer program, and only a quarter of organizations utilized the volunteers they did have for skills-based or professional tasks, despite the fact that skills-based volunteering is demonstrated to be highly impactful and cost-effective for causes. With more training and staff support, these organizations could, in turn, better utilize skills-based volunteers.
Many outside the Nonprofit realm have a knee-jerk reaction to the notion of charities hiring paid helpers, whether they’re contractors or salaried staff. Intuitively, it might seem like running on pure volunteer power would be the most cost effective way to make an impact. But that belief ignores the idea of Return on Investment. The biggest “return” the world needs from nonprofits is positive community change, and as much of it as possible. Fortunately, a new initiative out of the national Points of Light network — the Service Enterprise Initiative — is proving that organizations who skillfully utilize paid staff and volunteers together are among the most sustainable and impactful, making double the impact of their peers on similar budgets.
When you invest in your organization’s infrastructure and staff capacity, and pair that with skillfully recruiting and managing amazing volunteers, social impact magic happens. Organizations that have participated in the Service Enterprise Initiative so far are reporting that for every $1 they invest in effective volunteer management — including investing in professional staff to oversee volunteer programs — they see between a $3 and $6 return through more effective program delivery. That means more people served and more lives changed, and that’s really what it’s all about.
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