Notes for a Volunteer


Becky Bridges Dinnin, Oct. 2020

Many nonprofits lean heavily on their board and skills based volunteers to fill gaps in staff, for coaching and to increase professionalism. These are the volunteers that provide pro-bono work in their area of expertise. It is one of the most impactful ways that nonprofits can address their survival now that we are facing recovery from the pandemic. Nonprofits need people now more than ever to walk with them and roll up their sleeves in order to make it these next few months and years.

However, volunteer help can be a blessing and a curse. Many nonprofits have felt both when enlisting volunteers and ‘free help.’ I’ve watched as nonprofit leaders have a no-win situation because they do not have an easy way to tell these well intentioned folks that their help will take too much time to manage; or hand-holding an influential volunteer with a ‘I’ll fix it’ idea can quickly turn into a disaster.

Of course the best volunteer offers their help only when asked. You want to help out, but don’t force your great ideas upon the nonprofit because you are a Board member or a donor. Boy, do I have stories about how this has gone wrong in my experience. Volunteering for a cause you care about should be by invitation from the nonprofit, much like going to dinner at someone’s house. It’s just the right thing to do – wait for the right timing and the invitation.

Volunteers who can provide the most impact listen first. With all of our efforts to do something helpful, nonprofits need volunteers to slow down and learn the business first. Not only are there legal requirements for doing some things the hard way, there are often political and cultural differences volunteers must learn before offering to change what they see as wrong or outdated.

Nonprofit leaders and their staff live for their organization. Yes, nonprofit leaders know it is a business, but it is also a life for a vast majority of employees. Nonprofits know the bottom line intimately and do all they can to implement for-profit business practices. But they also know that their clients get services for free, that earned revenue is tough to come by, and donors do not pre-fund innovation, overhead, professional development, marketing, new product development… the list is long. They just don’t. Can you bring ideas on improved process and efficiencies? Absolutely! But good volunteers listen before they jump in and push changes that may create more problems than they solve. Volunteers need to understand that nonprofit businesses are forced to live by different revenue rules and the barriers are very difficult to overcome.

Nonprofits need do-gooders to respect their experience and knowledge. Volunteers who come from ‘real business’ often do not recognize the long history of ideas and trials that have been completed in order to get to the current place. All ideas are welcome, but be patient if you are a volunteer who wants to implement your way because it has worked for you. Volunteers can write up consultant style plans with solutions that simply can’t be implemented due to lack of resources or staff. Or perhaps it takes some time to change things up or to raise money for that new initiative.

A reminder: nonprofit financial laws are different. Big chunks of nonprofit revenue is often restricted and cannot be diverted to a new idea just because a board member requests it. If an organization wrote a 3-year grant for a program, they legally are required to spend every penny on that program unless the funding organization agrees in writing to change the use. That never happens. This includes using the money for staff hours assigned to that program. Unlike for-profit business, changing someone’s job description or what they work on can’t be changed on the fly.

Most important is to work together. Give a little at a time. Do small projects with limited scope until you know the organization’s rhythm. Timely volunteers in short term projects can have a powerful impact. Large scale changes and consultants with new strategies have a place, but the nonprofit and the board need time to prepare to be in that place. Now, more than ever we need volunteers, and we need volunteers to learn the way of good service. This will result in long-term success not only for the nonprofit, but it will make a long time friend and resource of volunteers.

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