Risks Accompany Benefits When Skilled Volunteers Are Needed

The value of volunteers has long been recognized by nonprofit managers. In light of recent economic difficulties and funding challenges, the base of willing and committed individuals as a means of coping with limited resources has been further built up.

But with the benefits come certain risks that nonprofit leaders need to inventory and address.

According to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) survey, almost one-fifth of the American adult population had volunteered at an estimated value of $188 billion during 2015. The survey also reports that 72 percent of American volunteers devote a significant amount of time to the organizations they serve, an average of 52 hours per year. Volunteers benefit an organization in many ways, including cost reduction, enhanced constituent services, broadened community reach, and additional knowledge and perspective.

To gain these benefits, managers must devote significant effort to attracting and retaining volunteers. However, managers must be cognizant of the risks associated with volunteer engagement. They need to take the necessary steps to manage those risks to protect the reputation, resources and ongoing mission achievement of the organization.

Here are some ideas:

  • Recruit volunteers much the same as you do employees: To find the right volunteers to fill positions, apply the same process and standards you use for hiring employees. Based on your organizational strategy and mission, conduct a gap analysis of services and resources needed, determine the scope of work to be performed, identify ideal characteristics and skills desired of volunteers, and perform a diligent search. Gap analysis is the comparison of actual performance with potential or desired performance.

    As with staff, the goal of volunteer engagement is a mutually-beneficial relationship. Be clear about what you are asking and offering. Describe what the role comprises, your organization’s mission and culture, and the potential gains for the individual filling the position.

    The three broad categories in which volunteers are placed are governance, program and service delivery, and fundraising (e.g., serving on the board or a committee, helping in a soup kitchen or seeking sponsorship for a marathon). Different skill sets are required for each category. Ensuring the right fit provides the assistance your organization needs and satisfaction that is prized by volunteers in today’s environment — performing interesting and meaningful work, and making a positive impact on society.

    For the volunteer, additional perks are enhancing or refining their personal and professional skills, and broadening their social network.
    To reach potential volunteers, locate their gathering points. According to the BLS survey, approximately 39 percent of volunteers got involved because of a friend, relative or a personal connection within the organization. Another 42 percent approached the organization on their own.

    Your employees can be some of your best volunteers and referral sources. Get your messages out both internally and externally to solicit and educate potential future volunteers. Network and use targeted social media, such as Instagram for Millennials and LinkedIn for Baby Boomers.

    Partner with for-profit organizations where employees have the skills needed to further your mission. Many corporations are more actively encouraging community involvement among their employees, so you will likely find a receptive audience. Make connections with key personnel through networking or by simply contacting the human resources departments. The offer of information sessions or visits to your site could pique the interest of potential volunteers.

  • Be intentional about retaining valuable volunteers: As with employees, it takes a great deal more effort to find, engage and train a new volunteer than it does to keep a current one happy. Honor their commitment by recognizing their contributions and avoiding a focus on the needs of the organization versus the interests of the volunteer.
  • Keeping in mind that according to the BLS survey there has been a slight but steady decline in volunteerism since 2011, appoint a strong volunteer management function with protocols to build long-term relationships. Instead of assigning management responsibilities to a low-ranking professional who has time available, select a staff member with management skills and authority to make decisions and changes. This manager can help foster volunteer loyalty by staying in close touch with individual volunteers to address concerns and requests, and assuring that responsibilities and tasks are clear so their time is not wasted.
  • Help volunteers do their work by providing appropriate tools and information. For example, in acknowledging the competitive demands for their troop leaders’ time, the Girls Scouts of the USA developed a Volunteer Toolkit, an online resource that offers meeting and project plans, as well as suggestions for activities.
  • Ensure that your nonprofit has a culture that is welcoming and supportive of volunteers. To gain the buy-in and support of staff, particularly those who will be charged with direct oversight of and engagement with volunteers, allow them a say in the planning, goals and structure of the volunteer program. Provide both staff and volunteers with training in effective collaboration. The quality of the volunteer experience is extremely important for volunteers’ ongoing efforts and future engagement in roles that might be different from those for which they were initially recruited.
  • Recognize and mitigate risk factors: When managers consider risks associated with volunteers, they usually identify negative consequences for the volunteer: What happens if the person is injured? How can the person respond to an unexpected request from a client? Any number of situations could have potential ramifications for the volunteer.

However, those situations can also have consequences for the nonprofit. An accident or an underserved client or inappropriate volunteer behavior could lead to negative media coverage and expose the organization to significant reputational and possibly financial damage.

It’s a mistake to compromise on quality in recruitment or training because the work to be done will be free. Having the wrong person in a volunteer position can be as costly as a mistake in employee hiring. Establish standards for volunteers you seek to attract and apply those same standards to those you already have. Keeping to those standards will be much easier than dealing with the consequences of volunteers who might cause you trouble.

There are a number of steps you can take to minimize your risk exposure:

  • Be proactive in recruitment and retention activities. Incorporate volunteer management as a component in your enterprise risk management system;
  • Identify behavioral characteristics to avoid;
  • Perform background checks of potential volunteers;
  • Acquire volunteer accident insurance and bolster organizational liability coverage;
  • Dedicate portions of volunteer training to discussion of real-life scenarios, and identify steps to take and staff to contact; and,
  • Establish a process to match individual volunteers to appropriate service areas.

With continued budget constraints, volunteers can be the catalysts to drive the mission while preserving organizational resources. An effective volunteer management program focusing on risk, recruitment and retention is essential in maximizing volunteer engagement, improving strategic outcomes, furthering the mission and preserving your organization’s good name.

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Jennifer Hoffman, CPA, and Edward Miller, CPA, are partners in the audit services, Not-for-Profit and Higher Education Practices of Grant Thornton LLP. Her email is Jennifer.hoffman@us.gt.com. His email is Edward.miller@us.gt.com.