Volunteers Don’t Get No Respect – Pam Zerba

I volunteer a lot, have for years, for all types of organizations. Big, small, local, national, well-funded, hanging by a thread. All of them proclaimed themselves eager for volunteers, grateful for volunteers. Why do they so often misuse volunteers so badly?
The number one problem is simple: They don’t have anything for the volunteers to do. Wait, you’re thinking. Non-profits, charities, are all under-funded and under-staffed. There must be lots to do.
That’s usually not the issue. There’s plenty of work to be done, but volunteers aren’t trained to do it. Not all volunteers have computer skills, or knowledge of the organization’s software. Sometimes the work involves looking in files that have confidential information. I once had a volunteer assignment that involved reviewing complicated financial information. As I worked with the organization, it became clear that the work was a duplication of what staff had already done; the organization thought it would make volunteers feel more invested if we were involved in the review, but it had been finished, and decisions made, before we volunteers even started.
What volunteers can do is usually pretty basic: collating, labeling, stuffing. That’s okay. If the organization takes the time to explain why the work is important – how much money it hopes to raise, for example, and what good it will do with that money – mature volunteers will be willing to do it.
Often, though, when the volunteers arrive, the mailing isn’t ready. The labels aren’t done, the person who was supposed to sign the letter to be mailed is out, so the letters aren’t even copied, there aren’t enough stamps. It’s not uncommon, in my experience, to have the dates and times when volunteers are needed to be changed at the last minute, or to arrive and be greeted with, “Oh, we forgot to call you! We don’t need you today. How about tomorrow?”
These organizations like the idea of volunteers. They understand that having volunteers in their offices can help generate a greater commitment from those volunteers. However, many of the people who actually work with volunteers seem to equate their value with the amount they are being paid: zero dollars, zero respect.
Staff members almost always talk a good game. “We love our volunteers! We really appreciate you guys!” But the carelessness with which they treat volunteers’ time reveals what they really think. Part of this is caused by the stress working with volunteers can cause. Most staff members are terribly busy. If the head walks in one morning and announces, today you get to supervise the volunteers, the overworked staff person naturally sees that as a burden – especially if the work the volunteers are being asked to do isn’t crucial.
It’s important, too, that the staff members present a positive view of the organization. If the staff members are overwhelmed, if the volunteers are doing worked that a recently laid off employee used to do, they don’t always present a happy face. Organization heads are so wrapped up in the idea of using volunteers that it doesn’t seem to occur to them that their staff members might not be so enthused. Maybe everybody at the charity knows that grumpy ole Sue in accounting has a heart of gold, but the volunteers won’t know that if she barks at them, or complains about how the organization is run.  Instead of leaving the volunteers impressed and re-committed to the organization, a bad experience, or a series of bad experiences, can leave the volunteer disillusioned – exactly the opposite result the organization wants.
What’s really irritating is that this can be fixed. Organization heads should make sure that volunteers have work to do, that the work is ready for them when they arrive, and that the staff members they interact with are able to project a positive image about the organization. An organization that can’t manage that has other problems that need to be dealt with before they start recruiting volunteers.
By Pam Zerba
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