If you were to list things that make our nation great, volunteerism would have to be near the top.
That spirit of selflessness and charity reaches across political, ethnic, racial, and religious boundaries to address critical needs of people and communities.
In this article, we’ll look at the history of volunteerism, what it means to nonprofits, and steps to get and keep the best volunteers at your organization.
Volunteerism is not a new concept. The word has roots as far back as the 1600s, from the Middle French "voluntaire": "One who offers himself for military service."
Americans have a long history of volunteerism. Throughout time, people have pulled together to help those in need. From Benjamin Franklin’s idea of using volunteer firefighters to protect neighbors’ homes and businesses, to the days of “barn raising” when farmers gathered to build or rebuild a neighbor’s barn, donating time and money has long been part of our culture.
Though the term “nonprofit” was not yet coined, one of the first known nonprofit organizations to utilize volunteers was the YMCA, founded in 1851. Young men and women volunteered to help the needy people of their communities. During the American Civil War, one of the most famous volunteers—Clara Barton—provided aid to the military and later founded the American Red Cross.
Today you will find volunteers serving in thousands of settings such as healthcare facilities, schools, mentoring groups, and numerous other nonprofit organizations. These helpers are key to organizations’ ability to accomplish their missions. You’ll find volunteers answering phones and greeting visitors, transporting senior citizens, cooking meals, teaching classes, planting gardens, advocating in court, building homes, and performing hundreds of other important jobs.
As organizations recover from the pandemic and struggle to operate in record-high inflation, they are faced with a dilemma: available resources are withering while the demand for services continues to rise.
For this reason, most nonprofits love (and need) volunteers. Cash-strapped organizations rely on individuals to donate their time to carry out the program. Groups like Big Brothers/Big Sisters, CASA, Habitat for Humanity, and most religious congregations likely could not survive without a strong volunteer base.
Americans donate an average of 52 hours per year with an estimated value of $203 billion.1 In 2019, an estimated 30% of Americans or 77.9 million people reported they volunteered for an organization or association.2
While volunteerism had been on a downward trend, there was a dramatic increase in response to the global pandemic. Healthcare workers, nonprofit personnel, and citizens from all backgrounds gave their time and talent to help individuals in need.
Recruit with Caution
Serving as a volunteer is rarely glamorous. It is usually done in a low-key setting with very few or no accolades. Yet, if you ask the men and women who serve as volunteers about their pay, most will tell you that they receive much, much more than they give.
To attract and retain good volunteers, nonprofit organizations must have a plan for volunteer recruitment and management.
Bringing a new volunteer into your organization should be done with the same care and caution as used when hiring a paid employee. Keep in mind that all personnel—paid or unpaid—are ambassadors of your organization and can be an asset or a liability.
To bring in the best volunteers:
- Identify your organization's needs.
- Write clear job requirements and responsibilities.
- Perform appropriate interviews.
- Conduct background checks.
Be picky. Don’t take the first warm body off the street. During the interview process, you may discover that a person, while passionate and talented, may not be the right match for your organization.
In his book Quality Management in the Nonprofit World, Larry W. Kennedy said, “Managers cause most of the problems with volunteers by making unreasonable assumptions about their intentions and capabilities.”
It’s better to identify the mismatch in the early stages rather than spend time and money on a volunteer only later to realize the relationship is not going to work.
Provide Support & Supervision
Not all volunteers who come to an organization have a clear picture of the mission or program. Most know only what they’ve heard from others or seen on a website.
It is the responsibility of the nonprofit to provide proper training and orientation for volunteers. Each volunteer should complete a mandatory training session where the organization’s program, rules, mission, and structure are clearly explained. Although not a binding contract, it is recommended that volunteers sign an agreement to carry out the described duties.
Without proper training, volunteers are less likely to understand their parameters and are more likely to fail in their supporting roles.
Once volunteers have completed training, it is essential they have an assigned staff member to provide support and guidance. Some organizations go so far as to give volunteers an annual performance evaluation, much like those of paid employees. In this review, volunteers are graded on set expectations and outcomes. A poor review can be grounds for probation or even termination.
Praise Frequently & Loudly
It’s been said that compliments are highly biodegradable and tend to dissolve hours or days after we receive them—which is why we can always use another one.
To retain your organization’s volunteers, it is important to remind them often how important they are and what great work they are doing (assuming this is a true statement).
Simple and cost-effective ways of doing this are:
- Maintain consistent communication, and say “thank you” often
- Hold an annual volunteer recognition banquet—give awards to volunteers
- Have occasional volunteer social gatherings
- Highlight volunteers in your newsletter, annual report, and on your website
- Invite volunteers to board meetings and fundraising events; let them speak about their experiences
- Honor them on their birthday and for personal achievements
Remember, volunteers are giving time to your organization because they are passionate about the cause. If you fail to give them proper support and recognition, they may feel their contribution is not needed and lose that passion. That’s when they’ll move on to a different organization.
If you have any questions, please reach out to a professional at FORVIS or submit the Contact Us form below.