Those employed in nonprofit and public agencies hear the word volunteer and generally picture someone working side-by-side with the paid staff. Such settings are called volunteer-involving organizations (VIOs). But there is a huge other arena in which volunteers are both workers and managers. That is all-volunteer organizations (AVOs) such as civic and service clubs, small faith communities, co-ops of various kinds, self-help groups, hobby clubs, professional societies and lots of other membership associations.
Volunteers with a direct, personal connection to the work of an organization are often conspicuous by their absence, particularly in human service agencies. These are recipients of service, their families and friends, or people in the facility’s immediate neighborhood. These are the folks the staff serves, and therefore are not always recognized as a source of talent.
The question of where to “place” responsibility for the administration of volunteer involvement surfaces repeatedly, with no agreement upon standard practice. While there is no definitely right or wrong department or level in an organization where volunteers belong, where they appear on the organizational chart sends a message as to their importance.
The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) is close to becoming a questionable jobs program — aided and abetted by financially-strapped nonprofit organizations. What’s the evidence for this provocative assertion? Let’s start with some history.
In his brief spot on NPR recently, sports writer and commentator Frank Deford noted that 16,000 volunteers had been recruited to help at the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey slated for Feb. 2, 2014. Remarking on the millions of dollars involved in this commercial event, he asked: “Why would anybody volunteer to work for free for the Super Bowl? Would you volunteer to work free for Netflix or Disney World?”
Most would consider it a responsibility of executives to be well informed about the organizations they lead. They do not have to memorize every statistic, but ought to be able to speak knowledgeably about what services are being provided and to which clients or consumers, how much funding has been obtained and from what sources, the numbers and qualifications of employees.
‘Tis the season to say thank you to volunteers. With the impetus of National Volunteer Week the third week of April and the Conference on Volunteering and Service this month, students leaving as their semesters end, and various programs winding down for the summer (or gearing up), there’s a calendar full of volunteer recognition luncheons and dinner banquets.
The television news show "60 Minutes" aired a feature story this past November on “Children Helping Children.” It centered on Craig Kielburger, who at age 12 took action against child labor and exploitation in Pakistan, eventually recruiting his friends to the cause and founding Free the Children. Some 17 years later it is an international charity with more than 1.7 million youth involved in education and development programs in 45 countries.
It’s a paradox. In a bad economy, more people are in need of the services provided by nonprofits just as it gets harder to raise funds for those services. People see that volunteers are important and organizations try to recruit more of them.
Leaders of volunteers deal daily with all sorts of misconceptions that seem never to die, no matter how often they are challenged. These include perennial favorites, such as volunteers are free (and you get what you pay for), volunteers pose greater risks than paid personnel, and so on. Perhaps the biggest fallacy of all explains the others: It is the assumption that people automatically know how to work effectively with volunteers.