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Volunteers are people too!

People — not money — make an impact.  People find ways to get things done, even with little or no money. As any cash-strapped start-up organization knows, much can be accomplished on a budget of $0 if you have passionate, committed people putting their talents to work.

We at Commongood Careers are passionate about the power of people. We know that having the right person in the right role can multiply your organization’s impact.  While human capital management has traditionally presented a challenge to the nonprofit sector, it seems that the tide is finally turning. Cutting edge organizations and social entrepreneurs are starting to discover the potential that effective human capital management practices have to increase their impact, even as their resources are shrinking (for some interesting ideas on this, check out the report from our Conversations with Social Entrepreneurs event series.

When you think about ways to leverage the talents of your people to increase your impact, what do you think about?  Unless your organization is on the very cutting edge of human capital management (in which case we would love you to share what you’re doing), we would guess that “apply human capital management techniques to volunteer management” didn’t make your list.

But why not? Volunteers are people too! Not only are volunteers people, volunteers have vast resources of untapped talent that they are trying to contribute. After all, they’ve shown up to help you with your mission, ready to donate their most precious resource: their time.

Then why is it the case that organizations (even those with large numbers of volunteers) sometimes view volunteer programs as a necessary evil to bring in more donations or perhaps as more trouble than they are worth?  For organizations that have not thought strategically about how to use staff time to really leverage their volunteers, these passionate and talented volunteers can be a bit overwhelming: what should I do with them? Often the answer is to give them something — anything! — to do.

Volunteers can sense when their time is being wasted. Can you remember a time you worked with an organization and felt like it didn’t matter if you were there or not?  A time when you felt like you were given a task just to keep you busy?  And did you ever volunteer with that organization again?  If your answer is “no,” then it may be safe to say that many others would be no different.  According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review article, The New Volunteer Workforce, about one out of three volunteers who volunteered in one year didn’t come back the next for a common set of reasons…because the tasks they were doing didn’t leverage their skills and talents, because their contributions were not recognized or measured, because the training was insufficient, because there was a lack of leadership, or all of the above.

If this wasted talent were measured in dollars, you can bet that something would be done about it.  We can hear board members, donors, and staff members talking about it right now: “how can we fix this situation? How can we leverage what we have to create the greatest impact?”

What could happen if we, as a sector, managed volunteer time and talent with the same care, dedication, thoughtfulness, and strategy with which we manage money?  The sky’s the limit.  But we have to start by looking at how to manage volunteers like the talented, capable contributors that they can be.



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