Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.
Many organizations in the nonprofit sector rely on the help of volunteers. Whether this is in office work, stocking inventory or helping to prepare for an event, the volunteers are a highly valuable asset. Skilled volunteers are a special type of volunteer. These volunteers are individuals who volunteer in the capacity of their everyday work or with skills that they are specifically trained in. The difference between a skilled volunteer and a non-skilled volunteer is that skilled volunteers have education, training or abilities that a volunteer from the general population would not have. Often times the skilled volunteer also has skill sets and trainings that most paid staff within the nonprofit do not have. For this reason, skilled volunteers are highly valuable - and as such managing them effectively is essential.
Aaron Hurst, founder of the Taproot Foundation, notes that skilled volunteers are essential to helping nonprofits become self-sustaining and they help the nonprofit put forth the biggest impact in the communities they serve. Hurst also explains that nonprofits from a wide variety of backgrounds are looking for skilled volunteers to help their organizations stay active and to grow from good to great in the community. The skilled volunteers provide opportunities for the organization to acquire help and labor that they would not normally be able to afford. According to Scott Chin, president of the Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission, without the dedicated dentists, chefs and lawyers that offer their education and training as skilled volunteers, some of their programs would cease operation. Chin also notes that skilled volunteers are an essential component to the nonprofit and that the skilled volunteers fill roles that would otherwise be empty due to restricted budgets.
Exemplary management practices
Now that the definition of skilled volunteers and evidence of their impact has been explained, understanding the best way to manage these individuals is key. There are essential practices that need to be put into place by managers of skilled volunteers. According to Knepper, D’Agostino and Levine, in the Journal of Public Management & Social Policy, volunteer management can be complex, and the ability of managers to make the most of their volunteers is not guaranteed. They also note that volunteer managers need to understand that recruitment, coordinating, leading, supporting, administering and organizing are all key aspects of their job. However, there are some aspects of these duties that can fall through the cracks.
Research has shown that the management of skilled volunteers is a driving factor behind the skilled volunteer’s effectiveness in the organization. The key factor of managing skilled volunteers is using them to the best of their ability.
The first step in managing skilled volunteers is acquiring them. Jennifer Paddock, executive director at the nonprofit Acres of Diamonds, suggests acquiring the skilled volunteers either through word of mouth or through a recruitment process. She also notes that oftentimes skilled volunteers come about after they first volunteer as a nonskilled volunteer and realize their skillsets could help the nonprofit impact the community. Aaron Hurst also suggests that managers have a system of quality control when acquiring skilled volunteers. This means that the managers seek out volunteers that are consistent with the organization’s needs, and that they do not bring on skilled volunteers randomly, but rather for long-term goals. After the skilled volunteers have been recruited and screened, Mallory King, founder and executive director of Arts to Grow, suggests that it is essential to assign them to tasks that match their skill sets and what the volunteers themselves want to do with those skillsets for the organization. Knepper, et. al., suggests that the assignments of the volunteers be both for the greatest impact of immediate needs as well as for future growth of the organization. King also suggests that throughout this process managers need to be mindful of how skilled volunteers integrate with paid staff, which is done through trainings and making sure that roles and expectations are clearly distinguished for all involved.
One of the main takeaways to managing skilled volunteers effectively is communication. According to Scott Chin, communication is a vital component and it needs to be done clearly, early and often. This allows the skilled volunteers to be more successful at the tasks they are assigned to. It also allows paid staff to be aware of what is going on and then plan for the volunteers work in the organization. Other key components are to be flexible, and manage expectations of the volunteers. According to Paddock, some skilled volunteers do not realize that changes can take time, so making sure they are aware of their impact now, even if the changes are taking time, is very important. Paddock also mentions that skilled volunteers can come in with big dreams and big goals and it is important to manage their expectations so that the projects can be done creatively and affordably.
Last, but not least, is to be respectful of the skilled volunteer’s knowledge, perspective and time. Communicate with the volunteer, get to know them and create connections! Skilled volunteers bring new perspectives to the organization. Paddock suggests that communicating with them can open the door for networking, and having future questions and needs answered. Communication builds relationship, helps manage expectations and guides the volunteer; while being open leads to new ideas and new connections in the community.
Managing skilled volunteers effectively is essential to retaining them, having them work to the best of their ability and for ensuring that their skills are furthering the impact of the organization in the community. When a skilled volunteer is appreciated and is guided towards efficiency, they will flourish not only in their projects, but also in the organization. Thus, the organization is more effective at achieving impact in the community. When the skilled volunteers are not managed through clear guidance and direction, or if they are assigned to tasks that limit their capabilities, this causes them to be unhappy, unmotivated, and ultimately, they do not return to the organization. As such, the exemplary management of these jewels is vital to letting them shine!
Cordelia House is a graduate of the Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program at Arizona State University. Graduating with her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Chapman University in 2014, House gained experience working with underserved communities in Southern California and with outreach ministries through local churches. In 2017, after moving to Seattle, House decided to seek education that would help her take on nonprofit leadership roles more effectively. Her goal after graduating from the MNLM program is to continue serving the homeless and underserved communities in Seattle through outreach ministries, accessible healthcare and emergency services.