Why Nonprofit Organizations Have Difficulty Attracting and Keeping Volunteers

The primary reason nonprofit organizations often have difficulty recruiting volunteers is that the volunteer duties they are offering are not as interesting to volunteers as watching television.  The New Volunteer Workforce; Stanford Social Innovation Review, winter 2009, reported “Our research shows that the primary difference between volunteers and non-volunteers, when measuring what they do with their time, is the amount of television they watch.  People who do not volunteer watch hundreds of hours of additional TV a year compared to people who do volunteer.  It’s not that people don’t have enough time to volunteer.  People do not volunteer because nonprofits do not provide them with volunteer opportunities that interest them enough to pull them away from their television sets.” A Volunteer Management Capacity Study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Urban Institute, and the UPS Foundation, 2003, concluded there are five main reasons why, once volunteers are recruited and put to work, they so often do not return.

1.  Not Matching Volunteers’ Skills with Assignments.  Volunteers with valuable and specialized skills are often dispatched to do manual labor rather than tasks that use their professional talents.  The prime goals of corporate volunteer programs, for example, are building teams and increasing morale, which are most easily accomplished by groups of people doing manual labor.  For example, every spring in cities across the country, hundreds of professionals turn out to paint walls and plant flowers at local schools. Although this has its time and place, most community organizations really need an ongoing involvement that taps volunteers’ professional skills rather than a onetime project that uses their manual labor.  Volunteers often don’t get much out of the experience.  Many of these volunteers get an empty feeling when they know that the job they’ve been given is make-work or a photo op.

2.  Failing to Recognize Volunteers’ Contributions.  Nonprofits need to recognize volunteers both through an organizational culture that values them and through specific appreciation ceremonies and events. In their annual reports, most nonprofits list all individual donors categorized by the amount of money they have donated.  Very few nonprofits, however, do the same for people who donate their time.  Naming individual volunteers with the number of hours they have contributed (and perhaps the dollar value) is one way to demonstrate a culture that values volunteers.

3.  Not Measuring the Value of Volunteers.  Most nonprofits do not measure the dollar value that volunteers provide to their organization.  This reflects the lack of seriousness with which many organizations view volunteers and tends to compound the problem.  If nonprofit leaders had hard data demonstrating the value of volunteers, they would be more likely to invest more time and money in developing volunteer talent.

4.  Failing to Train and Invest in Volunteers and Staff.  Volunteers need training to understand the organizations with which they are working, and employees need to be trained to work with volunteers.  Nonprofits rarely invest substantial amounts of time or money in volunteer recruiters and managers.  For example, a youth service organization in Florida reported that at one time it had a busy receptionist managing several hundred volunteers.  Unfortunately, the receptionist model of volunteer management is all too common.  Nationally, one-third of paid nonprofit staff who manage volunteers have never had “any formal training in volunteer administration, such as coursework, workshops, or attendance at conferences that focus on volunteer management.”

5.  Failing to Provide Strong Leadership.  Most nonprofit leaders are simply not taking the time to develop or support volunteer talent adequately—resulting in a poor or bland experience that leads to an unmotivated volunteer who has little reason to return. Most nonprofit leaders do not place a high value on volunteer talent.

Recent grants received by our clients include:

$62,000 for a domestic violence agency - for a new information technology system

$50,000 for an agency that provides services to abused and neglected children - for a program to support the temporary placement of children who have been removed from their homes by Child Protective Services because of abuse

$25,000 for an organization that provides wishes and assistance to sick children and their families - for laptops

$20,000 for an agency that provides mental health services - for a program for seriously mentally ill children

$15,000 for an organization that provides court advocates for children - for general operating expenses

$10,000 for an organization providing temporary housing and support services for women recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction - for general operating expenses

The topic of our next blog on Tuesday, November 15th, will be “Diversify Your Funding Sources.”

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Murray Covens, Principal


North Texas Nonprofit Resources