Nonprofit MythBusters Myth #5: Volunteers are Free


By: Judy Chambers


Nonprofit MythBusters

Myth #5: Volunteers are Free

What’s the best thing about volunteers? They’re free! They don’t cost your organization anything, right? Wrong. Volunteers are an investment that will cost your organization time and money. But they’re one of the best investments you can make.


Volunteers are people who share your passion for your mission and want to help you achieve it. They perform a variety of tasks, depending on your needs. They may work directly with the people your organization serves, or they may support your efforts behind the scenes. And they also serve on your board of directors and committees.


Think about a food bank: Volunteers may greet people, register them, help them select food, demonstrate healthy cooking habits, deliver food for curbside pickup, provide additional services, and much more. Behind the scenes, volunteers may unload and stock food donations, prepare food boxes for pickup, inventory supplies, compile data, create marketing materials, solicit donations, post on social media, conduct fundraisers—the list goes on and on. Just imagine how hard it would be for our imaginary food bank to function without its volunteers!


Like any investment, the time and money your organization puts into managing its volunteers is strategic—designed to bring you a great return. There are costs to volunteer management, which is often performed by paid staff. If you are part of an organization with very little or no paid positions, your board may be directly involved in volunteer management. Either way, here are some of the key components that should be included.


  • Recruitment—At the very least, you need a position description for potential volunteers that describes the opportunities available in your organization, expectations for time commitment, the orientation and training process, and how the work of volunteers relates to your mission. A recruitment plan is next, which considers where you’re likely to find volunteers and how best to reach them—brochures and flyers, social media, presentations, etc. And if you’re going all out, provide opportunities for potential volunteers to spend a few hours with current volunteers before asking for their commitment.


  • Orientation—You may welcome volunteers one at a time or in groups. Either way, a volunteer handbook that explains expectations and policies is a good follow-up to in-person orientation sessions.


  • Training—Volunteers may need training for such tasks as using office equipment, basic first aid, or safe food handling. If that’s the case, be sure to mention that in recruitment and orientation materials, too.


  • Evaluation—Just like paid staff, volunteers need feedback on their performance and an opportunity to offer suggestions. Make it fun and informal, but do it once each year.


  • Recognition and Retention—Thank your volunteers often. Give them shout-outs on social media, honor a volunteer-of-the-month, give them small gifts (t-shirts, hats, buttons), and surprise them with coffee and donuts, pizza parties, or whatever is appropriate for your organization. Take the time to send handwritten thank-you notes to volunteers when you see them going that extra mile, or to encourage them when the work has been challenging.


Sounds like a lot, and that’s just to get started! But there’s no need to re-create the wheel if you're missing some of these components. Some organizations that depend on volunteers have a volunteer administrator on staff—hospitals, nursing homes, schools, United Ways, and senior centers are likely sources. These folks have professional expertise in volunteer management and may be willing to share it with you. There are also many websites focused on nonprofit volunteers; do a web search for free resources and ideas.


So what’s the return on your investment in volunteer management? In addition to getting critical work done that helps you meet your mission, volunteers in a well-managed program contribute to your organization’s long-term stability. Since they are often on the front line, they can let you know about small problems and challenges before they become big ones. They can help recruit and orient new volunteers. Many have untapped skills that could be very helpful. And some of them are interested in moving onto the board or working on committees. They are often donors—so make sure you ask them—and can introduce you to other potential donors as well.


Volunteers make great ambassadors who share their passion about your organization with friends and family. Happy volunteers are doing marketing for your organization every time they share their experiences. They expand your network of community connections when they talk about your organization at work,