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Volunteer Management: How to Get it Right

Karmit Bulman

This article is reprinted with permission from Blue Avocado, the practical and readable online magazine of Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group, for nonprofits. Subscribe free by visiting

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:

Misconception #1: Volunteerism has no role in your strategic plan and volunteer managers don't belong on the executive leadership team.

Our survey demonstrated that volunteer engagement professionals (VEPs) are unlikely to serve on the organization's executive leadership team or be included in strategic planning. There can only be so many people at the table, right? Nonprofit CEOs said that volunteer management is a support function, not a strategic one, and VEPs aren't seen as senior enough to participate, plus volunteers don't impact the bottom line. Working with volunteers is seen as different from working with staff--particularly around availability and accountability--and some staff don't like working with volunteers. They claim volunteers are more trouble than they're worth.

Misconception #2: VEPs are just friendly, administrative staff. They can be paid less than other directors, and their positions can be combined with other duties.

Many nonprofits view VEPs as entry-level roles anyone can do; they're seen as tactical, with a narrow scope of responsibility. So why bother paying them like directors; after all, volunteers are free, so shouldn't the folks who manage them be cheap, too? No doubt part of the problem is that because there's no clear career path for VEPs, many people in the role tend to be younger and less experienced, they turn over frequently, and they're some of the first to be cut when the going gets tough.

Lots of organizations will see high turnover as a result and are unwilling to staff the job full-time, combining roles or even treating VEPs as second-class citizens. CEOs see the job as clerical, thereby justifying their decision to make the job part-time or combined.

Misconception #3: Volunteers are easy to find and they're not critical to our work.

Many nonprofits believe volunteers are an added bonus and that finding and keeping them simply requires a friendly staffer to keep them happy. Yet most CEOs realize that VEPs need the same skill set as senior executives, including development, program, and HR directors. After all, these positions all require a person with experience developing community partnerships, building and expanding programs, and recruiting, training, and managing people.

The reality is that volunteers are the secret sauce in nonprofit success. Along with paid staff, they are a nonprofit's greatest asset. As nonprofit revenues decline and the needs of underserved populations grow, volunteers are needed now more than ever. Volunteers have high-level skills that can be the key to maximum mission capacity. However, volunteers need the same supports and infrastructure as paid staff, including vetting their skills, plus careful job placement, onboarding, supervision, and recognition. They are not a magical, free resource.

So how can nonprofits lift up volunteers and VEPs?

The key to success is visibly appreciating volunteers' roles in contributing to your mission. That includes making this case clearly to your board, staff, and the community, all with the aim of creating a culture that values volunteers. So what does this actually look like in practice?

1. Articulate the connection between volunteers and fundraising, and the strategic role of volunteers in programs and outreach.
2. Restructure your organization to put volunteers and the staff who lead them in more visible roles.
3. Add your VEP to the organization's executive team.
4. Pay VEPs a fair wage for a high-level, strategic staff role.
5. Leverage volunteer talent, not just time, to advance programs and operations.

After talking with almost 500 nonprofit decision-makers and 50 volunteer engagement professionals, we are clearer than ever that there is work to be done so that nonprofits can reach maximum mission capacity through effective volunteerism. The time for change is now.