They’re Not A Frill If You’re Using Them Right: How to Get More Done Using Volunteers

11/08/2021 11:31 AM | Anonymous

By Kelly Kleiman, ACN Member 

Very few nonprofit organizations use volunteers well.  There are exceptions, of course, like the outstanding docents of the Chicago Architecture Foundation, who conduct virtually all the foundation’s public programs after rigorous training. But much more common is the attitude typified by the head of a large charity in New York: “I wish someone would get these volunteers off my back!”  This is very much like saying “It’s so annoying having to pick up all these $100 bills falling from the sky!” because people who volunteer give more money than people who don’t, and unsurprisingly, most of that money goes to the agencies where they volunteer.  Volunteer workers are only a pain in the ass if you’re not using them right.

The key to using volunteers well is the Big MAC: Meaningful Work, Autonomy, and Collegiality.

Meaningful Work 

No nonprofit has as its mission “stuff envelopes” or “file,” but those are the kind of tasks we tend to assign to volunteers—and, as you may have noticed, there aren’t nearly as many envelopes to stuff as there used to be!  Volunteers, just like staff—even more so—want to do work that contributes directly and obviously to mission.  Several things follow from this:

  • Nonprofits need to have thought in advance of projects—not tasks but projects—that need to be done but for which no one on staff has any time. One of my best experiences as a volunteer began when the executive director responded to my handing her my resume by handing me a list of things the staff was too overwhelmed to manage.  I chose the one closest to my skills and in completing the project, solved a problem for the agency and developed such a sense of its value and my ability to contribute that I joined the board.
  • The most familiar of these projects is “design the website,” which is why the Taproot Foundation is forever assigning volunteer teams to do it.  While this requires some caution—you need to be clear about the volunteer’s level of expertise and what staff support they will require—any volunteer who does this successfully will have received a crash course in everything about your agency and, feeling useful, will commit to it with their dollars as well as their time.                                    
  • The second-most familiar of these projects is organizing a benefit event—the classic activity for the Ladies Who Lunch. 
  • Any executive director who can’t come up with a list of five projects that are always on the back burner (e.g., evaluate the effectiveness of this program!  Rework the scheduling for that program!  Find out why people are ignoring the other program!) is not thinking hard enough.

Often when I tell nonprofit executives that volunteers require meaningful work their backs go up like exasperated cats: “It’s not my job to bring meaning to their lives!”  No, of course not, but that’s not the kind of meaning we mean when we say meaningful. (Department of Redundancy Department!)  If the project has value to the agency which can be explained, it has meaning to the volunteer.  There won’t always be a perfect match between a volunteer worker’s skills and interests and the tasks available, but in that case acknowledge the mismatch and send the person on their way with a feeling of having been treated thoughtfully and respectfully.  And when there is a match, it’s like having an extra employee—but for free!

Which leads me to another common problem in using volunteers: the staff’s resentment of people who are doing for a hobby what they do for a living.  It’s essential that staff members understand that they are being supported and not supplanted by volunteers.  This is easiest if, once the match of volunteer to project is made, supervision transfers from the volunteer coordinator or executive director to the appropriate staff member. For instance, a volunteer searching for cheaper office space should be referred to the director of operations and one assisting with event planning to the director of fundraising. We know to do this with interns, so it’s not clear to me why it is so seldom done when the cost-free labor comes from experienced adults.

And speaking of supervision:


Your volunteer workers, just like your paid staff, will be happiest when they have a certain amount of latitude in how to complete their projects.  What amount is appropriate varies with each volunteer, each project, and each supervisor—but bear in mind that if you assign a volunteer to write a promotional piece and they come back with something suitable, it’s best not to rewrite it so you think it’s perfect.  Re-doing their work leads inevitably to frustration and a sense of futility on the part of your volunteer.  It’s more important to value someone’s contribution.

In other words, there’s a difference between supervising and micro-managing.  Err on the side of choosing smart people, giving them the “what,” and letting them choose the “how.”


People volunteer because they want to exercise their skills, because they want to be of service—and because they want more contact with others than their current life provides.  While it’s not always possible to find more than one volunteer for a project, often it will be—and that sense of working in partnership will make your volunteer worker feel more confident in getting the job done, not to mention more likely to do it when there’s someone else concerned with its progress. 

If you can’t give a volunteer worker a partner or a team from within the volunteer group—or even if you can!—make sure they are treated as full team members by their supervisors: have them invited to departmental staff meetings; have them included in brainstorming sessions.  The more they are included, the more they’ll understand how their project fits into the agency’s goals and plans; and the more they understand that, the harder they’ll work—and the more they’ll donate!

Naturally, inclusion and collegiality are made more difficult if people are working remotely, but it is no more difficult to compensate for that with volunteers than with staff.  That’s why God invented Zoom meetings and phone check-ins!

One Last Thought

You may have noticed that I frequently refer to “volunteer workers.”  Keep in mind, that’s what they are: people who have come to offer their skills and labor to your organization.  Because the word “volunteer” has come to suggest—unfairly!—people with nothing else to do who come and kibbitz at your workplace, some places call them “unpaid consultants” or “unpaid staff.”  That may not be necessary (or sufficient), but it is necessary to treat unpaid workers like staff: give them clear expectations, make sure they have the resources they need to accomplish the project with which they’ve been charged, include them in decision-making, and hold them accountable for results. 

If you do all that, you’ll get more done using volunteers!

Kelly Kleiman, a lawyer educated at the University of Chicago, has spent more than 30 years in the nonprofit sector. She founded NFP Consulting in 1988 after serving as executive director of the Chicago Children’s Choir and assistant dean of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.  Through her consulting practice, Kelly helps nonprofits with fundraising, strategic planning, board development and the use of high-skills volunteers.  She also advises on issues of charity and philanthropy as The Nonprofiteer, Kelly was a founding member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits.

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