Volunteers Are The Worst

Nonprofit VolunteersImagine you are a pretty senior person in a corporate job. Someone tells you there are twenty people who are dying to volunteer for your department.

Volunteer, not intern – These folks get paid nothing in exchange for the experience and knowledge that they are helping you in getting your big job done.

And they are (I repeat!) free labor. They will do anything you ask them. Your department gets more work done and, as a result, is more profitable. And since your own year-end bonus relies on your productivity, the more you deliver, the more you make.

Sounds kinda awesome right? I’m thinking you’d sign right up.

So then why do so many nonprofit leaders have a serious love/hate relationship with volunteers? And is there anything they (and you) can do to make it actually work?

Why yes. Yes there is…

First, a recent reader, without meaning to, brought to light how valuable volunteers can really be:

“I’m the program director and run 9 different committees by myself with one support person that splits her time between me and the ED. Yet we have 4 staff members dedicated to two fundraisers. More money = more help.”

Perhaps more money equals more help. But guess what? More volunteers equals more help too! How about finding a first rate volunteer to work 15 hours a week to help with administrative support for this ridiculous amount of work?


So with all the potential upside, what’s the issue anyway? I mean seriously, who turns her back on free labor? Why don’t we all turn over every stone to try to find volunteers? Here are the top three excuses reasons I hear from nonprofit leaders.

  1. Volunteers are too much work. I have to figure out what the heck they can do that is finite, requires little supervision and keeps them occupied for long stretches of time. I am already way too busy to take on additional responsibility.
  2. Volunteers are just not reliable. I just can’t count on ‘em. I don’t pay them so who knows if they’ll even show up when I need them. I can’t take that chance.
  3. My work needs to be perfect. I can’t afford to let any balls drop – there’s too much at stake. I can’t give work to someone who doesn’t have the same amount of skin in the game as I do.


But they’re not. Here’s why.

Yes there’s a lot at stake if something gets messed up. But there’s even more at stake if you don’t get done what needs to be done. You can’t do everything yourself and have the reach and impact you need. It’s nearly impossible. If you never delegate, you’ll drown (and burn out.) And most nonprofits simply don’t have enough staff.

All three of the reasons come down to managing risk. You just need to find the right person who is committed to your mission. You need to give them specific tasks and you need to hold them accountable.

If you can’t do that, maybe the problem isn’t with the volunteers. Maybe it’s with you.


Don’t get defensive now. Of course there are great volunteers and terrible ones. A great volunteer is the same kind of person who makes a great staffer. She’s committed, understands her responsibilities (and has been sufficiently trained,) and she’s held accountable.

But there’s another critical ingredient. A great supervisor with a dose of creativity.

In other words, you.

Here’s what I mean about creativity. Think about the work you do every day. Think about the small tasks that, in aggregate, suck up your time. I’m positive you can come up with a variety of tasks for a willing and enthusiastic volunteer for at least an hour or two each day. If you plan far enough ahead, maybe even a couple days each week.

Filing. Backing up your computer. Pouring ketchup into cups for the lunch service at the soup kitchen.

It’s just not that hard to be creative about volunteers for annual galas and big dinner parties. In fact, you simply can’t execute these without dedicated volunteers. Start to think about your day-to-day job the same way.

So that’s the “creative” part. How about the “great supervisor” part?


1) Answer the phone

This one is a serious pet peeve. More than once I’ve told somebody I’m a nonprofit consultant and mention a client. The response: “Oh yeah, I tried to volunteer for them once but no one ever got back to me.”

SERIOUSLY? Just stop it! As an organization, make a decision. Either commit to working with volunteers or don’t. But if you do, pick up the phone.

2) Take interviews seriously

Just because the price is right doesn’t mean that either (a) the skill set is right or (b) the volunteer wants the gig for the right reason. Treat volunteer interviews just like you would for a full-time staffer.

3) Invest

People who drive meaning and significance from their work are more than three times as likely to stay engaged and stay put.

If you take time to share successes or a story that amplifies the need for your work, the specific task becomes unimportant. You’ll wind up with a volunteer who cares about the quality of the work as much as you do and will stay with you a long time. Don’t take your volunteers for granted. Let them know they’re appreciated and doing meaningful work.


Do my readers a favor. Head to the comments section below and share a great story about how a rockstar volunteer made your job a bit easier, came up with a great idea, or just provided strong moral support on a particularly tough day.

Let’s hear your stories. Inspire us.

And if you volunteer, thank you! And please share your experiences as well.