Nonprofit leaders love to extol the virtues of volunteers. They declare that volunteers are the heart of the organization. They assert that the organization cannot do what it does without volunteer involvement.
Yet the dirty little secret of the nonprofit sector is that many of these same leaders think that volunteers are more trouble than they are worth. That they are unreliable. That it is faster or easier for staff to complete tasks on their own.
It is true that volunteers can be more trouble than they are worth. It is also true that organizations have a bigger influence on volunteer “worthiness” than we care to admit. Holding volunteers at arm’s length, doling out small tasks we deem appropriate for them, and treating volunteer involvement as a series of transactions sends a message. And the message is that volunteers are not an essential part of the team.
Indeed, if we want volunteers to be “worth the trouble,” we need to engage them as full partners in advancing our mission. When we are successful, the benefits transcend the volunteers and the agency. It’s no longer Us and Them, but rather We who engage as and in community together.
Benefits of Engaging Volunteers Well
Research reveals a virtuous cycle that occurs when we engage volunteers well. An Urban Institute study found that the more agencies invest in their volunteer engagement, the more benefits those agencies receive. My own research reveals the potential involved in engaging volunteers fully (see below). When volunteers enter the organization, they bring the resources of the community with them and strengthen organizational capacity. When we actively share stewardship of the mission with them, volunteers assist in bringing the work and story of nonprofits back out into the community. Along the way, volunteers blur and soften the boundaries that sometimes define our work.
For example, volunteers expand organizational capacity in many ways. They bring in a wealth of resources: expertise, lived experience, connections, community perspectives, passion, and even the “luxury of focus” (Ellis, 2010). These contributions expand the boundary of who is qualified to do the agency’s work. Volunteers also are more likely to donate financially and do so at higher amounts than non-volunteers. This blurs the boundary between volunteer and donor—and creates a stronger community connection to organizations than either role alone.
Engaging volunteers also makes them stewards of the agency mission. This stewardship equips volunteers to educate and invite others into the work (Chertok, Parker, and Carter Kahl, 2019). When volunteers see themselves as ambassadors, they carry awareness about the organization well beyond the borders of the nonprofit. What’s more, if the volunteer experience is a good one, it generates good will, trust, and confidence. Organizations rely on these by-products to be successful, yet they tend to be elusive. We can’t buy good will or make someone confident in us, it must be earned. Volunteerism is one way nonprofits earn these relational assets.
From Volunteerism to Community and Reciprocity
My research on effective volunteer engagement keeps leading to the word reciprocity. In a reciprocal relationship, we each have something to give and something to receive. Organizations give volunteers access to community needs and a portal into being part of the community’s solutions. They transform volunteer labor into actions that meet those needs. Volunteers give time, talent, and passion. They transform these raw materials into organizational capacity and the satisfaction that comes from fulfilling their unique role in the community. When well matched, nonprofits and volunteers marry their unique gifts to fulfill a collective responsibility. It’s no longer about what organizations do for volunteers or what volunteers do for organizations but what we both accomplish as a community – and that is always worth the trouble.
A version of this essay ran in the Top 20 Ideas for 2020 in Volunteer Engagement, compiled and edited by Erin Spink of Spinktank.
1Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing.
2 Graeber, D. & Wengrow, D. (2021). The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity.
3 Wall Kimmerer, R. (2015). Braiding Sweetgrass.
4 Knutsen, W. L. & Brower, R. S. (2010). Managing Expressive and Instrumental Accountabilities in Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations: A Qualitative Investigation.5 Carter Kahl, S. (2020). Can Volunteers Help Nonprofits Keep Their Community Roots Alive?6 Shaw, M. (2021). Smoke Hole: Looking to the Wild in the Time of the Spyglass.