For those who give their time.

Volunteer Management: How to Get it Right

How essential are volunteers to achieving your nonprofit's mission? In our recent study, we learned that the lack of understanding about the essential nature of volunteers and the staff who lead them (called Volunteer Engagement Professionals--VEPs) undermines the effectiveness of many nonprofits. Don't fall into the same trap--with a few simple changes, your organization can ensure that your cause thrives with the support of your volunteers and team. But first, let's explore the most common misconceptions that trip up so many worthy causes:

When Kids Volunteer: Liability Basics

Whether kids sell cookies or help clean up a park, they are welcome volunteers. Just be sure you know the basics of how to protect them and your organization when it comes to liabilities (at the end of this article is a link to a sample waiver):

As a kid, I sorted food donations for Lithuanian refugees because my mother was a leader in the Seattle Lithuanian Community. I sold Camp Fire Girls' mints because, well, I had to. I interned at the Seattle Aquarium where I wore a badge that said, "Ask me! I know everything!" And I interned at Children's Hospital because I hoped it would make my college applications look better.

But somewhere along the way, something must have clicked, because by the time I finished law school, I asked my corporate law firm employer, "Could you wait six months while I intern at Amnesty International?" And a few years later when I quit corporate law, the first thing I did was a volunteer internship at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

If my experience is a guide, a childhood experience as a volunteer can lead to a lifelong commitment to giving back. And if kids are among your clients or constituents, then getting them involved is a natural. But you'll want to be sure you've got basic protections in place (I guess I haven't completely shed my lawyer hat!).

Liability basics for children volunteers

Here are the first things to think about:

Court-Ordered Community Service: Volunteers or Prison Labor?

Each year, hundreds of thousands of court-ordered community service workers are placed in nonprofits to fulfill their sentences. Although the image is typically one of a teenager sentenced to picking up litter, court-ordered volunteers perform a wide variety of roles in nonprofits. The very smart Susan Ellis discusses why and why not to accept such volunteers, and how to do it right.

Scene 1: You've just been caught embezzling from the auto body shop where you work as a bookkeeper. You're dreading having to do jail time, but it's your first offense, so maybe they'll go easy on you. Your attorney surprises you by suggesting that you ask the judge to sentence you to 500 hours of community service instead of 10 days in the county jail. Should you do it?

Scene 2: A finance director at a nonprofit that helps low-income women get jobs, gets a call from the volunteer center. The pitch: you'll get a volunteer, former-embezzler bookkeeper for 500 hours, no pay required, but you'll have to complete paperwork every week for her probation officer. Should you say yes?

(See the end of the article for the true-life answer.)

Alternative sentencing

For the last 30 years, courts have experimented with "alternative sentencing." An offender is given the option of completing a set number of hours of unpaid work in a nonprofit organization in lieu of a fine or spending time in prison, or as an adjunct to probation or parole.

Courts like alternative sentencing because it can reduce the costs of . . .

Volunteerism Public Policies Can Hurt Nonprofits

Amidst the predictable praise for volunteerism and the Serve America Act, we at Blue Avocado detect the mooing of a sacred cow. Cow hunter and policy analyst Rick Cohen lets us know the four things we should be worried about with public policy and volunteers:

Is your heart warm from last week's combo of National Volunteer Week and the anniversary of Serve America? Eyes wide open:

  • Bounty paper towels announcing the "Make a Clean Difference" volunteer campaign
  • Kohl's department stores supplying employee "volunteers" to youth organizations
  • Pepsi announcing 32 Pepsi Refresh grants
  • Virgin Mobile's program where Lady Gaga fans enter a raffle for tickets in exchange for volunteering at homeless youth shelters
  • Oh, and $1.15 billion in federal funds for Serve America

Yikes! Who wouldn't be inspired?

But we're worried. Not about volunteerism. Not even about . . .

Eight Strategic Mistakes with Memberships

If you have members (whether those members fit the legal definition of member or not), chances are you're making at least one of these strategic mistakes identified by Ellis Robinson. With striking clarity she points the way not only to building your membership rolls, but to understanding your membership as your constituency:

There's always someone who says, "We need to increase our membership from 5,000 to 10,000 in the next three years." But too often nobody really knows what our target membership should be, and nobody really knows how to do "smart growth" in membership. Here are the eight strategic errors I see all the time in clients and the organizations to which I myself belong:

Strategic Mistake #1: Encouraging people to become members. This is a mistake because it's based on the idea that people . . .

Treasurers of All-Volunteer Organizations: Eight Key Responsibilities

More than half of the nonprofits in the United States are estimated to be all-volunteer organizations. Here is a wonderful, succinct guide for the 600,000 + treasurers of such organizations:

My time as treasurer of a faith-based nonprofit was a labor of love. Starting out as an all-volunteer organization with a $20,000 budget, we developed financial systems, workable budgets, and demonstrated accountability. We served families affected by incarceration and there's no greater personal reward than seeing people realize they have real hope for a better life. In just three years the budget grew to over $330,000.

However, there was stress as well. As a CPA I found myself the recipient of unnerving deference at times. I frequently fell short in communicating financial information to board and staff. But the outcomes made it all worthwhile.

This experience helps me appreciate one of the many unsung heroes of our time: the treasurer of the all-volunteer organization (AVO). AVOs are among the most important and most invisible building blocks of our communities. Members of all-volunteer organizations read to children, care for the dying, get clean water legislation passed, serve as . . .

Criminal Records Checks for Prospective Staff and Volunteers

Dear Ask Rita: I keep being told we should do criminal record checks on prospective employees and even volunteers and board members. But how? Is there a simple and cheap way to do this? And do we need their permission to do it? -- Reluctant to get into the fingerprint checking business

Dear Reluctant: Background screening is a good idea for all organizations, especially those working with vulnerable populations, so we're glad you asked. As you know, there are many types of screening, such as checking criminal history or credit history, verifying credentials or licenses, reviewing motor vehicle history, or doing reference checks. This article addresses only checking on criminal history.

Whoever is suggesting criminal background checks probably also told you . . .

Alcoholics Anonymous vs. Best Practices

This article about Alcoholics Anonymous is not about how they help alcoholics, but reviews their unusual management and organizational practices, which fly in the face of much conventional wisdom about what good nonprofit management looks like. As part of our Blue Avocado philosophy of challenging assumptions, let this article stimulate your thinking about your own assumptions.

What U.S. nonprofit do you know that has more than one million members, more than 55,000 local chapters, elects its leaders, and does no advertising or fundraising?

Answer: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

AA may be the largest and least visible nonprofit organization serving your community. Within just a few miles of Silicon Valley where this writer lives, there are 115 meetings per week. In Humboldt County -- a rural area of California with a population of only 130,000 -- there are 174 weekly meetings! And these numbers are replicated across the globe.

AA's twelve-step philosophy and meeting structures are well known to much of the public. This article touches briefly on some of the lesser-known organizational aspects of . . .

What Are the Board's Responsibilities for Volunteers?

Susan Ellis has one of the smartest voices in volunteerism, and she talks here about a neglected topic on boards: strategic support at the board level for the critical volunteer workforce in our organizations.

Does your organization involve volunteers in service delivery? (It already involves at least some volunteers--on the board!) If so, when did the board last focus attention on this subject?

Don't allow volunteer involvement to be the invisible personnel issue. If something is neglected, it may thrive by accident. But proactive support of volunteer involvement dramatically increases its potential achievement level. So what can a board of directors do?

1. Regularly devote time to the subject of volunteers at board meetings. This sends a strong message to everyone that volunteers are important. Develop thoughtful policies about and goals for volunteer participation. Budget adequately to support the work volunteers do. Become as involved in "raising people" as in raising money.

2. Develop an organizational vision for volunteer involvement and set standards in . . .


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