The downturn in the economy is proving to be a boon to volunteerism. It won’t matter. Most non profits are egregiously under-resourced in staff, dollars and expertise. Here are six reasons why most volunteer experiences will inoculate people against ever coming back.

The Push-and-Pull Effect

I am more than enthused about President Obama’s national call to service. Almost 1.3 million hours have been pledged on the Starbucks Pledge3 site alone. According to Tara Weiss, in an article posted today on; “The Ronald McDonald House of New York has had a 10% increase in volunteers since this time last year.” In Boston, the United Way, Big Sisters and Boston Cares all report significant increases in volunteer numbers. Rick Wallwork, the Associate Director of Boston Cares, reflects that although February is usually pretty quiet, “the numbers are through the roof. We have more than 1900 volunteers signed up for month of February compared with 1150 volunteers throughout the month last year. That represents a 65 percent increase over last year.” ( read the full article on

Unlike it has during past recessions, volunteerism is surging. The Corporation for National and Community Service (the federal agency that tracks volunteer numbers) estimates that one million people participated in January’s Martin Luther King Day of Service, which is double the numbers for 2008.

AmeriCorps, a federal agency promoting volunteerism, has received three times the applications this year compared to 2008. Even applications to the Peace Corps spiked by 37%, most notably during the days before and after President Obama’s inauguration. (read the full article by The Canadian Press)

Certainly, the Obama Effect is pulling people into the arena of community service….but there is also a pretty strong push which we’re all too familiar with: unemployment.

Taproot is a US non-profit that matches skilled professionals with non-profits that need their expertise. In the last few months they have seen a whopping 171% increase in applications. Aaron Hurst, Taproot’s president believes this increase to be due in part to Obama’s national call to service, but due to information captured on the intake forms, he also knows that it is largely due to layoffs. (read the full Rueters article)

Gary Bagley, the director of New York Cares recently remarked, “We can’t open the doors wide enough. Everything we’re doing is full. Our orientations are booked three weeks in advance.” He was curious as to why there was such a drastic increase in the number of volunteers he was seeing, so he began surveying the applicants. About 60% had experienced a change in their work situation, or were now unemployed. (read the full article by The Canadian Press)

Six Reasons Why You’ll Probably Never Volunteer Again

After listing numerous reasons why people might want to volunteer and outlining the benefits that lay in store for those who make the choice, Tara Weiss offers six steps to successful volunteering. (It’s set up like a slide show, but first you’ll have to turn off the annoying video advertising on the landing page.) Based on my experience, what Weiss has ironically (and maybe accidentally?) uncovered are six systemic flaws among most non-profits, including the reasons why most people will have an dissatisfying, if not downright unpleasant, experience.

So, here are Weiss’ six steps, and my six, “Yeah, but…” responses.

Step One: Set your goals

“Consider what you want to get out of a volunteer experience. Most people volunteer because they want to make a difference. But there are other things you may want too, such as: getting out from behind your computer and among people; networking; sharpening your professional skills; and learning new skills. Decide which are the most important and choose your volunteer position accordingly.”

Problem One: Non-profits are focused on agency goals – not yours.
Yes, most people volunteer because they want to make a difference, but…most non-profits are structured to utilize volunteers so that they (the org) can make a difference. These two objectives are often at odds and can consequently create hard feelings. On the other hand, you may be able to find a task that not only suits you, but achieves some goals you have around learning new skills. More likely, you’ll have to take whatever job you’re given.

Rebeca Holloway tried volunteering at a hospital after being laid off. At first, it was quite promising, but soon she, “absolutely hated it” and, “dreaded going into the office every week.” Why? “It takes energy to delegate and sometimes it’s easier for people to do it themselves,” said Holloway. “They had big plans for me, but it didn’t work out.” In the end, Rebeca found herself doing, “excruciatingly boring grunt work two days a week.” (read the full NY Times article)

Step Two: Make a time commitment

“How much time can you devote to volunteering? Answer honestly, since you don’t want to overcommit and then disappoint the organization. Consider how often you go on job interviews and how your schedule will change once you get a paid job.”

Problem Two: Non-profits don’t have the resources to commit to you.
Having a clear understanding of your ability to commit to a community organization is essential to a good experience. The problem these days, is that the non-profits cannot afford the same courtesy to those who sign up to volunteer with them. Why? Besides being notoriously underfunded when it comes to infrastructure, non-profits are reeling from the surge of good will. The result, according to Bertina Ceccarelli, a senior vice president at the United Way in New York, is that volunteers have entire weeks of time to fill. The problem she says, “It’s almost more work to find something for a volunteer to do than to just turn them away.” (read the full NY Times article)

Step Three: Face-to-face or virtual?

“Some volunteer positions don’t require any face-to-face contact, particularly ones that involve professional services. If you sit at your computer for hours searching for jobs, face-to-face contact may be a welcome reprieve. But some people prefer working alone at least some of the time.”

Problem Three: Due to Risk Management, you may not be allowed interaction with clients, anyway.
Overall, there is a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the reasons why people volunteer. Volunteering is about relationship and real-time, meaningful encounters. Remove the people and the real-life issue, and volunteering becomes pretty damn optional. Good volunteer opportunities connect with internal motivations in volunteers. Telling people it’s a “good” thing, while leaving the motivators at an external level, will inevitably result in volunteers opting out when something more important comes along.

Step Four: Understand the Cause

“Once you’re attracted to an organization, make sure you really know its mission and goals. If it’s not a cause that strongly appeals to you, you probably won’t enjoy the experience. Find something you feel passionate about.”

Problem Four: Due to being chronically overworked, few non-profits have the time to enliven a volunteer’s passion.
I absolutely agree with Weiss’ ‘step four.’ In order for volunteers to choose a cause they’re passionate about, the work of an organization needs to be clearly communicated to them. Incidentally, this does not mean handing out a Publisher pamphlet outlining the mission/vision/values. To truly understand an organization’s worth, people need to hear stories. Reading stories is fine, but somewhere along the line we all need to internalize the life of the non-profit. The work, the people, and the issues need to become part of the volunteer’s own narrative – and this requires dialogue. So what’s the problem? Most non-profits simply do not understand how essential verbal story telling is to volunteers. What’s worse, often there is little or no space provided for these stories to be told intentionally.

Step Five: Make sure there’s structure

“Find out if the organization you’d like to volunteer for has the structure to support volunteer efforts. Your time will be best served if they’ve had volunteers before and know how to place them in the right roles. If it looks like there won’t be anyone to supervise you, you likely won’t have a rewarding experience.”

Problem Five: No one donates money to build the appropriate structure for managing volunteers.
Again, I agree with Weiss. Most volunteer positions offer a less than rewarding experience. This is exactly the reason: a severe lack of essential structures focused on the volunteers themselves. When an already precarious structure receives an influx of new volunteers, you have a recipe for disaster. The NY Times reports that “Smaller organizations, with staffs of fewer than 20 and no full-time volunteer coordinator, have struggled to absorb the influx, especially since many of them have simultaneously had to cut back on projects in the face of dwindling donations and government grants.” Too many volunteers, insufficient funding spent on managing volunteers (especially these days), and you’ll find nonprofit executives begging to stop the phones from ringing with offers to help.

Lindsay Firestone, who manages pro bono projects for Taproot, said the organization had scaled back recruitment this year after attracting more volunteers than it could possibly accommodate. “It’s like a Greek tragedy,” she said. “We’re thrilled to have all of these volunteers. But now organizations are stuck not being able to take advantage of it because they don’t have adequate funding.” (read the full article here).

Taproot may actually be the exception to the rule in this case. At Taproot, volunteers are a primary goal of the organization, but most non-profits are forced to see volunteers as a means to an end. Sure, good volunteers are always welcome, but non-profits often have little patience or permission to work with the neophytes. That’s because funders want results, or they get bored and disabused of the importance of the work.

Step Six: Be open-minded

“Many organizations need volunteers, and most of them you’ve never heard of. Before you turn one down, learn about it. If you can, meet with staff to hear about what they do. You just might discover the ideal opportunity.”

Problem Six: It is very difficult to volunteer these days. Even before the financial collapse and the Obama Effect.
Due to the virtually non-existent interest among donors to fund infrastructure, marketing, internet presence or solid skills training for volunteer management, it is very difficult for the average person to find a place to volunteer – let alone figure out what’s going on before they show up. Non-profits are usually resourced to run ‘sexy’ programs, with most of the money targeted to deliverables (none of which seem to include the above items). The result is a veritable ghetto of skills among the rank and file non-profits in the US and Canada (I think it is a bit different in the UK and Australia).

So, upon reflecting on the less than stellar experience that she was able to offer at the United Way, Ms Ceccarelli said, “My hope is when they decide it’s time to do something else, they have fond memories of what they learned at United Way.” After a moment, she continued, “Maybe they’ll even become a donor. I’ll tell you, there isn’t an executive director in town who doesn’t think that way.” And there it is. Volunteers are fine, but money is always better. (read the full NY Times article)

Volunteers, better than money and easier to get

The 6 problems listed above are not always true everywhere you go. There are great non-profit organizations out there who know exactly what they are doing and are thereby leading the way out of the old “Charity” model – where volunteers are seen as a means to an end (until you raise enough money and can hire staff).

For my part, personal experience allows me to believe in and advocate the ideals. At Realized Worth, we utilize an approach that achieves the following;

FULLY AUTOMATED VOLUNTEER RECRUITING AND SCREENING. Remove time and personnel barriers by making everything from recruiting and screening to job assignment and evaluation automatic. (It’s not as difficult as it sounds – promise.)

CONNECT THE ORGANIZATIONS OBJECTIVES WITH THOSE OF THE VOLUNTEER. Acknowledge what the volunteer wants to do (which will be all the wrong things, of course) and start there. (What they want isn’t what you need, but start there anyway.)

TASKS AND ASSIGNMENTS PERFECTLY SUITED TO INDIVIDUAL VOLUNTEERS. You’ll only drive yourself nuts looking for the perfect volunteer, so build jobs around the people that show up. (If you look long and hard enough, you can find something close to the perfect volunteer, but it’s always too little, too late.)

ATTRACT THE BEST VOLUNTEERS, AND KEEP THEM. The most destructive part of most volunteer programs is treating everyone the same. Giving everyone equal say, equal privilege, equal leadership and equal recognition is a recipe for disaster. You will overwork the best and bore the hell out of the most promising.

LIMITED STAFF ARE REQUIRED. Re-write the job description of every staff member you have. In order to run an excellent volunteer program your staff must see themselves as facilitators of volunteers rather than “bosses” working to get a job done. Staff make it possible for volunteers to do the work, not the other way around.

A SUPERIOR VOLUNTEER MANAGEMENT PROCESS. I know you have a ‘primary audience’ with whom you work, whether it be diabetics or homeless youth. Your mission has got to include the broader population (stakeholders, if you want). You need them to buy in to your cause and push for long term, societal and political changes. Volunteers are as much the recipients of your good work as the ‘clients’ with whom you work.

I encourage you to read our six part series on achieving these goals for your own organization. And as always, I’m more than happy to answer questions. Contact me directly at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed