12 Mar 2020 | 15 min read
10 Volunteer Management Myths it's Time to Debunk
Volunteering is a rewarding experience. Managing volunteers can be just as satisfying. But anyone who has worked with volunteers understands that the process is not always what it appears. It’s time for Volunteer Managers to skip the baloney and squash these myths about volunteering for good.
#1 EVERYONE SHOULD VOLUNTEER
This sentence is one of the most dangerous lies circulating in the volunteer industry today. Nonprofits and churches push their need for volunteers continually. Articles online talk about the benefits of volunteering and why everyone should jump in and serve. We can’t count the number of times volunteer managers have said to us, “I just need bodies to fill the position. I’ll take ANYBODY.”
Internally, we cringe every time we hear that sentence. Trust us. We sympathize with that desperation to fill roles. We know what it feels like to need help so badly that you are willing to take the first person who makes the mistake of making eye contact with you. But we’ve also learned that not everyone is a good fit for your organization.
Yes, there are some events where just anyone will do—volunteer roles like handing out waters at a marathon or cleaning up a community park. But in many cases, volunteers are needed to fill positions where they are somehow representing the company through their efforts. And this is where organizations run into trouble because they make the mistake of taking the first people to sign up.
It’s not that someone might harm your organization or brand intentionally, but it certainly is possible if they haven’t been adequately trained and are interacting directly with guests. Brand protection is one of the reasons we push so hard for organizations to take the time to interview potential volunteers or at least put them through an application process. You deserve to have a team that is just as passionate about your mission as you are and who will work hard to help you accomplish those goals. You also deserve to have team members who will protect your organization’s reputation with the same zeal you would.
Some people will not be good fits for your organization. But that’s okay.
It’s better to say “no” before someone starts serving your organization than having a tough conversation a few weeks later. All you need to know is how to identify your dream team and skip out on the drama of accepting sub-par volunteers.
You are doing important work. You deserve a team of star performers who will make your life easier and help you get the job done right.
#2 THE ONLY PEOPLE WHO VOLUNTEER ARE SENIORS
The face of volunteerism is changing.
Yes, according to research done by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2016 (the most recent year available), those most likely to volunteer were Generation X (people ages 35-44) and Baby Boomers (ages 45-54). Leaving Millenials (ages 20-34) and Generation Z (people ages 15-19) at the bottom. But don’t expect things to stay that way.
In her book Thrive, Arianna Huffington reported that recent studies show Millenials will soon lead the way in volunteering, with 43% engaging in service. And although some experts expect Generation Z to stay out of the volunteer pool, don’t count out young people just yet. Sparks and Honey reported that Gen Zers are some of the most socially conscious people out there with “passions that are focused on issues that both reflect more traditional values and caring for the greater good.” There are plenty of ways to engage with the younger generation. You just need to learn to speak their language.
#3 VOLUNTEERS CAN’T BE FIRED
One of our friends recently inherited the Volunteer Management role at her office. The previous staff member left suddenly, and she had to scramble to catch up quickly in the position. She never worked with mass-scale volunteers before, and she felt a little out of her depth. After a few months, she came to us with a problem. “How do I fire a volunteer?”
She quickly explained her dilemma. Her volunteer was an older gentleman who had mobility issues. The job he had volunteered for was pretty physically demanding. The volunteer was adamant that he could do the work, but it was getting to the point where she was starting to worry about his safety. “I’ve talked to him about switching roles, but he only wants to serve there. I’m worried he might hurt himself, but every time I bring it up, he says he can handle it. At this point, I can’t diplomatically move him to another location. I have to fire him.”
It’s a tough one.
For the health of your organization, this might be something you eventually need to do. When it comes to volunteer safety, the safety of others in your organization, your brand’s reputation, or a million other little reasons, you might be in the hard position of firing a volunteer.
Our friend was in the delicate situation of firing a volunteer who also happened to be a significant donor to her nonprofit. It made her task even more difficult.
What was our advice?
Yes, explain why you have to make the cut. Offer alternative solutions. Tell your volunteer how valuable he is to the organization and why this is a difficult decision. But don’t compromise.
It’s going to be uncomfortable. Feelings are going to be hurt. And yes, you might even lose a vital donor. But you can’t be held hostage by everyone’s desires and feelings. You have to protect your organization and your team, even if it means protecting them from themselves.
Treat it like a bandaid. Rip it off quickly and move on.
#4 IT’S TACKY TO ASK VOLUNTEERS TO DONATE
For nonprofits and churches, volunteers don’t just represent a non-paid labor force; in many cases, they are the biggest supporters of the organization financially as well. Volunteers are twice as likely to donate than those who don’t volunteer. It’s not tacky to ask your team to give. It’s a natural progression.
According to Smart Annual Giving, “But your volunteers are your biggest advocates. More than anyone, they understand your work and the importance of your mission. They also understand that your organization depends on financial support to continue to operate.”
The key is the ask.
The end of the year is one of the best times to ask stakeholders to invest in the organization. According to MoblieCause, 30% of donations take place in December. Smart Annual Giving suggests making a unique appeal to those who already give their time to your organization. The tone of your message should be friendly, grateful, exciting, and urgent. These people already know you. They see the work you are doing and what it takes to get the job done. Your request should reflect that knowledge and capitalize on immediate needs volunteers would be especially sensitive to see change.
#5 PEOPLE DON’T HAVE TIME TO VOLUNTEER ANYMORE
According to the study from Aguiar and Hurst, leisure time for Americans has increased 4-9 hours per week over the last century. And a recent article in the Huffington Post shows that those who volunteer tend to feel better work/life balance, which gives the impression of having more time themselves.
The sensation is called “time affluence,” and it is the feeling of having enough time to pursue personally meaningful activities.
Long story short? Everyone has enough time for what is important to them. If you’re looking to get more volunteers, you have to sell the role in a way that prioritizes your organization in people’s lives. People will make time for what they value.
#6 ALL VOLUNTEERING BELONGS IN A ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL BOX
If you’ve been in volunteer management for more than one day, you know this statement is false. So why do organizations try to squeeze their program into the same neat little box that works for everyone else? Your organization isn’t doing the same thing that every other organization does, so why should your team be set up the same way as everyone else?
It’s time to change the way you view managing your volunteer team.
Volunteering at your organization might not look like it does at any other company, but that’s okay! You have to do what works for you.
There are tons of new ways to appreciate, grow, and manage your team- maybe they haven’t been imagined yet! Set your own standard. Take what you know will work for your organization and toss out the rest.
#7 VOLUNTEERS CAN’T BE LEADERS
There are plenty of nonprofit organizations out there run entirely by non-paid staff. Research shows that these types of groups tend to be driven by volunteers who share the same passion, commitment, and drive. Although the same studies found these teams tended to experience slow and incremental growth, they were often ambitious and rooted in the local community’s needs.
Volunteers have much more capacity than we often give them credit. While some organizational leaders fear that because a volunteer isn’t paid, they won’t be responsible enough to take on a leadership role in the organization, research has discovered that simply isn’t so. One study found volunteer leaders were more committed and intellectually engaged in their organization than comparable leaders from a trade union.
Commitment is an integral part of volunteering, but it doesn’t mean members of your team should be stuck in the same role forever. Reward stellar volunteers with more responsibility and the opportunity to stretch their leadership muscles.
Your organization might have volunteers who would thrive in leadership roles.
Start small. Give those star team members the chance to lead a little group of two or three. Watch them, guide them, and then stand back.
#8 MANAGING A VOLUNTEER PROGRAM IS EXPENSIVE AND TIME-CONSUMING
Okay, so maybe this one is truer than myth, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are tons of awesome (and free) tools to help you manage a volunteer team that thrives — and doesn’t consume all your time and resources in the process.
Here are just a few of our favorite resources (some free and some not) for busy Volunteer Managers. There are a lot more out there, but these are good ones to help you get started.
- PLANNING CENTER – (FREE for basics) Volunteer management tool built specifically for churches but works for nonprofits as well.
- UNSPLASH – (FREE) High-resolution photos.
- LAUNCH KIT – Shameless self-promotion, but come on! Where else can you get an entire volunteer program strategy kit? Includes strategy planning on recruitment, training, valuing team members, and much more.
- TRELLO – (FREE) Project management tool.
- CALENDAR – (FREE) Meeting scheduler and shared calendar online.
- 5 LOVE LANGUAGES – (FREE) Sign up for the newsletter to get ideas on how to value your team using the five love languages.
#9 YOU NEED A LOT OF VOLUNTEERS TO GET THE JOB DONE
This one goes back to myth #1. A few good volunteers beat a crowd of mediocre any day.
If you have a handful of fantastic volunteers who love your organization, are excited about what you are doing, and have great attitudes, you don’t need an army to get the job done.
It’s quality over quantity.
Remember, technical skills are teachable. Attitude is much more challenging to adjust. We would rather have one fantastic volunteer with great character than twenty volunteers, all trying to do their own thing.
All you need is a few engaged team members. An article by Forbes reveals that highly engaged teams can show up to 21% greater profitability. What concrete actions can you take to engage your team? According to Forbes, engagement results from providing clear expectations, furnishing them with the necessary tools, and offering your support for them to accomplish their best work.
#10 YOU DON’T HAVE TIME TO TRAIN YOUR VOLUNTEERS
According to the Association for Talent Development (ATD), companies that offer training to their team have 218% higher income (per person) than organizations without formalized training. These companies also have a 24% higher profit margin than the ones that spend less on training.
The research proves you don’t have time NOT to train your team.
Training is vital for a successful volunteer program. There are multiple levels of volunteer training, but unfortunately, a lot of organizations are missing out on even offering new team members the basics.
Here at Volunteer U, we offer generic volunteer training in our LAUNCH KIT. The LAUNCH KIT is a complete digital download that focuses on your organization’s vision, mission, culture, passion, and helps you train your team to serve with excellence.
That’s our list of 10 Volunteer Management Myths. Did we miss anything? What would you add?