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What lurks behind the volunteer boom

November 6, 2009

Life at Volunteer San Diego sometimes feels like Dickens’ opening line…”it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So much attention on volunteerism, so many people wanting to help, so much good will in our community.

And yet, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the organizations who would transform this good will into improving the community. My colleague, Gary Bagley, at New York Cares writes about it eloquently in the Huffington Post In short, our sector is trying to overcome some pervasive volunteer myths while we work to keep up with skyrocketing demand.

-Volunteers don’t organize themselves. Someone knowledgeable about the organization needs to screen, match, orient, train, supervise and engage them. Before that happens, someone has to think of how volunteers can help and plan accordingly. Most nonprofits don’t have a dedicated staffer to do this and in cases where they do, nearly 80% of the staff have no volunteer engagement training.

-Long-term capacity building can drain short-term capacity. It’s difficult to invest in the future when it’s a struggle to survive in the present. Staff cutbacks combined with an increased workload mean little energy for this important, but initially time-consuming work.

-Many prospective volunteers never get beyond prospective status. The agencies who might engage them are so busy trying to keep up with their day-to-day activities that no one can respond to the phone calls and best intentions of volunteers. If you’ve ever thought that you could do a project faster and easier by yourself (particularly if the person you are training to do the job may not come back again), you can understand where many nonprofit staff are.

-Volunteerism isn’t free. It takes a staff member to do all the above activities, a database to keep track of people and tasks, computers and phones to respond, and training for staff who have a responsibility to work with volunteers.

Of course, at VSD, we help volunteer programs run better, but we’re not immune to environmental forces ourselves. We had a 45% increase in the number of volunteer positions we filled last year. It costs us $21 to fill a volunteer position, and that’s with significant volunteer time leveraging our staff, sometimes in a 3:1 ratio. When corporations or other groups contact us to manage a volunteer project for them or want a menu of volunteer projects from which to pick, they are sometimes surprised that we charge for this service. Many of our nonprofit partners pay a mere fraction of the cost for our support services. Volunteers pay nothing.

But without VSD, even fewer prospective volunteers could get connected with the organizations that need them, and our nonprofit partners would miss out on the increased human capital available at a time when needs are high.

In response, we’re soon launching a ‘Sponsor a Volunteer’ fundraising and education campaign to help us continue brokering our community’s human capital.

We welcome your donations as always (, and also your thoughts on how to make this campaign successful: doors you can open, feedback on what resonates about our services or messages for you, partners who can advance our efforts. Thanks for your support of volunteerism!

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