New Thinking and Talking About Volunteers 2.15.09

"Men don't volunteer as much as women do," or so says conventional wisdom. But Susan Ellis counters: "Men volunteer a lot; they're just not called volunteers. They're called coaches and firemen!"

With new waves of stimulus package volunteers and retirement-age volunteers coming down the road, it's even more urgent that we change the way we talk -- and think -- about volunteers.

Old language (often said in apologetic tone): "We have only a few staff, so we have to rely on volunteers." New language: "Because we have so many volunteers, we don't need more than a few staff."

Old: "Our volunteers help us [staff] so much!" gushes a nonprofit staffperson. New: "Volunteers help the patients so much!"

Old: "We have a couple of volunteers who help with the newsletter," said the director of a nonprofit legal services organization, adding, "Oh yeah! And some pro bono attorneys." New: "Our organization is lucky to have pro bono attorneys, pro bono writers, and pro bono graphics and layout staff."

Old: "We have 25 staff and 175 volunteers," said a museum director starting a speech. New: "We have 200 staff, of whom 175 are volunteers and 25 are paid."

To quote Susan Ellis again: "Paul Revere made his living as a silversmith. But he's remembered for what he did as a volunteer."

If you're a volunteer (messenger, revolutionary, American hero like Paul), print out this article and give it to the volunteers and staff you work with. Let's change not only the world, but the way we talk about it. --Jan Masaoka

* This issue hear from an Air Force captain who moved to the nonprofit sector; learn how to accelerate board recruitment, and Take a 3-Minute Vacation to the Land of Your Dreams.

Comments (11)

  • Anonymous

    One caveat about trumpeting volunteer contributions, especially calling volunteers "unpaid staff": in tough budget times, such phrasing makes it even easier for contributors, local government partners, and even boards to wonder why money can't be saved by running an organization with all volunteers.

    Feb 16, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I disagree. There is always a need to have staff to coordinate and supervise volunteers. For over 20 years I view volunteers as "unpaid professionals" who are often more dedicated and motivated to the mission.

    Feb 16, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I have to agree with anonymous. I'm not sure over-reliance on volunteers is the best tactic for a sustainable nonprofit. Far better would be to figure out a way to pay people what they're worth.

    Feb 16, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I agree 100%.
    Over-reliance on volunteers for any nonprofit that is planning to be sustainable for the long-term would be stupid.
    Been there, done that...several times. A healthy staff / volunteer mix in my opinion would be a maximum of 70/30 with a strong paid director.

    Dec 06, 2009
  • Why on earth is it a contradiction to feel great about the work volunteers do AND to provide a decent salary for paid staff? Seems to me that if we see these two things in opposition, we're already in big trouble. I do think, however, that nonprofits should invest more time, energy and planning into how to make the most of volunteers so that overworked paid staff aren't scrambling madly to come up with tasks for volunteers at the last minute. To me, that's one of the things that makes it hard for paid staff to appreciate volunteers. But I guess that's another story for another time.

    Feb 17, 2009
  • Anonymous

    Thanks Jan for offering a great change in perspective.

    What you write really resonates - for the past two years, I've been recruiting and training volunteers at an organization called Exhale, and we've initiated and implemented a "culture shift" around volunteer involvement. Not only do we talk about volunteers in the way that you describe, but we engage them in leadership opportunities and development - they excel personally and professionally as a result, and our organization truly thrives with their contributions. Here's hoping more orgs move in this direction - I think it benefits everyone.

    Feb 19, 2009
  • Agreed - we need new language but replacing "We have only a few staff, so we have to rely on volunteers." with "Because we have so many volunteers, we don't need more than a few staff." is not the right way to phrase it!
    One of the unspoken issues paid staffs have - which is why they often sabotage volunteers by treating them poorly - is that they may be replaced by volunteers. This only reinforces that concern. What I would suggest instead is, "We have a fantastic team of paid staff and volunteers who work in partnership to serve our clients; they each bring unique strengths to our mission." Also - Please pardon my plug, but my book, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Recruiting and Managing Volunteers" comes out 10/15/09 from Penguin. And yes, several of these issues are addressed! John L. Lipp, President, PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) www.pawssf.org, jlipp@pawssf.org

    Feb 19, 2009
  • How would you handle 4,000 volunteers with a paid staff of only four people? Here's a video interview with the ED of Seattle Works and her viewpoint on volunteers. It's pretty interesting.

    http://www.501videos.com/mmpr/0209/eng_volpr.html

    Feb 23, 2009
  • Anonymous

    "One of the unspoken issues paid staffs have - which is why they often sabotage volunteers by treating them poorly - is that they may be replaced by volunteers."

    Staff should have clear contractual job descriptions for themselves and clear roles described for volunteers within the organization. A union is a good way to put some teeth into that contract.

    Apr 06, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Thanks

    Apr 28, 2011
  • Anonymous

    Visit re imagining service today!

    Feb 15, 2012

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