The Volunteer Who Couldn't

Martin Gorfinkel retired from the technology company he started and ran for 30 years. He is the legendary "retired and willing volunteer" but has run into roadblock after roadblock. We seldom hear from the would-be volunteer who never ended up volunteering; this is the voice of one such person, from whom there is much to learn (and a happy ending).

Trying to volunteer has been a disaster! Over the last five years I have made serious efforts to help at several organizations.

Exhibit A: A local hospital put out the word it was looking for men to help in the neo-natal nursery holding and cuddling babies. I would have paid them to do that! But first there was a two-hour orientation meeting at which we learned we needed to promise a certain number of hours per week on a fixed schedule for at least six months. AND . . . only after volunteering for more than two years could we expect to get assigned to work with babies! It felt like "bait and switch." I did not bother filling out the forms or going back.

Exhibit B: I volunteered during two holiday seasons to pick up toys that would be given to children. But the third year when I called, they told me how much they needed me, and that they would call in a few days. They never did.

Exhibit C: Another organization was looking for help writing reports.They found I had a background in statistics and signed me up to gather and analyze data. Turns out the organization had two locations; the internal politics favored location 1 while the statistics showed location 2 was about twice as efficient. I got no more data; they acknowledged receipt of the draft report - but did not think they would use it. Phone calls were not returned.

A tale of two food banks

A local food bank has two locations within easy driving distance of where I live. I have helped sorting food at both of them. At one location the people running the operation are sure they know the best way to do everything; they stand around and talk while the volunteers are sorting; they offer firm resistance to any suggestions for improvement. They're used to company teams volunteering in groups and don't know what to do with individuals. On the other hand, at the other location the management works up a sweat with the rest of the crew; they welcome new ideas, and when you show up the greeting is "Damn! It is good to see you again!!"

Common sense - along with your insurance company - dictates that you screen potential volunteers and gather some information from them. The workplace -- even though it is a workplace for volunteers -- does need to have some rules. But a group that wants volunteers must make the process "user friendly."

There are two ways - a rude way and a welcoming way -- to present forms to be filled out. Too often the attitude has been: "In order to enjoy the privilege of working with us you must fill out this information." What if instead I were told: "We are so glad to have you helping; we do need to have some information about you, please fill out the forms."

Similarly, with the workplace rules, it could be, "For your health and safety, and to keep the insurance company happy, we have to request that you adhere to the following," or, "Here are the rules; see that you conform."

It takes some time and effort to get a volunteer "on board." I know your organization needs to get a return on the time spent. And I understand that you prefer volunteers who are dependable and willing to work over a long time. But don't forget that the potential volunteer is also investing time and effort. Again there are two approaches. Do you say, "You must agree to work four hours a week for the next six months," or do you phrase it as "If things work out that you are useful here and you enjoy the work we would like you to put in about four hours a week, and we hope you would be with us for the long haul."

Potential volunteers ask themselves what they are willing to do and if they are ready to make a commitment. Your organization should consider these questions and make a commitment to encouraging volunteers. Here are a few ideas from this discouraged volunteer:

1. Does your volunteer coordinator respond to telephone calls, email, and other communication in a timely fashion? Does he or she contact people who have helped in the past to see if they can help again?

2. Have you made sure that everyone who works with volunteers understands that the red tape and bureaucratic requirements are secondary to the primary objective of getting volunteers working productively? Have you checked to make sure that the way paperwork is presented is not a blockade that volunteers have to fight through?

3. Do you inadvertently entice volunteers with jobs that you won't let them perform right away -- or ever?

4. Do you show appreciation for the work that volunteers do? Or do volunteers get the impression that you're doing a favor to them by letting them volunteer?

This story should have a happy ending - all stories need that. As I write this I've found some places that are making use of my volunteer time and skills, and I hope to write more for Blue Avocado as well.

Editor's note: After reading this submission, we couldn't help but wonder: maybe this guy is such a crank that no nonprofit would want him around? So we contacted the executive director of one of the organizations about which Martin complained. She reports that she was glad to hear his complaints, that they've improved processes there thanks to his complaints, and that he's been a great, easy-to-work-with volunteer for them ever since. Good to know.

See also:

Comments (47)

  • I love this input from someone who truly knows...

    Jun 01, 2009
  • Hi Ellen, Here's the link to the Seattle's Union Gospel Mission volunteer application: Blessings! -Melissa Engstrom Administrative Assistant SUGM Department of Volunteer Outreach Services

    Nov 03, 2010
  • Thanks for telling it like it is, Martin. One Volunteer Coordinator at a large nonprofit in San Francisco actually stood me up for a carefully scheduled interview appointment; another left me hanging for many weeks after the interview, after a promise to connect with me within 10 days, with no eventual concrete follow-up at all. I'm "Anonymous" here as I'm currently unemployed and may have to seek employment at those same institutions, if I'm desperate enough!
    It feels to me that many nonprofits leave their requests for volunteers at major Volunteer sites such as Volunteer Match solely to keep their names "out there"... and/or out of laziness in updating their profile. This often results in lackadaisical pro forma interviews with eager applicants hopeful for work that doesn't exist.

    Jun 01, 2009
  • What a conundrum Mr. Gorfinkel presents and so thoroughly.

    When bureaucracy interferes with altruism it's a problem. My opionin is to take flight whenever there are too many rules about "volunteering" that undermine the potential. Find another organization post haste.

    As an individual with a tradition of service as a tenet of our family and upbringing, let along having worked with non-profits for years, and not the director of one, I know the value of volunteers, and also the foibles.
    In some instances, if it takes too long to explain or train, it just isn't worth my time because I might as well have done the job myself. Other times when there is a group mission such as decorating for an event, ushering at same, that sort of thing it can work and for us it's a "one off".

    Unfortunately most of the time volunteers in my experience are less than more reliable and that goes back to our culture and the lack of commitment and responsiblity that is not being instilled in our youth, unless it's mandatory.
    All being said good to know he found more organizations to work with because clearly he seems sincere and smart.

    Stephanie Mardesich, Director/Founder
    LA Harbor International Film Festival

    Jun 01, 2009
  • I object to the phrase "most of the time volunteers in my experience are less than reliable". Most of the time young people are unreliable. Most of the time new staff are unreliable. Most of the time, film festivals are unreliable. But we don't give up on any of THEM.

    Jun 01, 2009
  • that wasn't the point.

    Jun 01, 2009
  • Having been a board member for many non-profits, I can attest to the "horror stories" above to be more commonplace then any could imagine. I would submit that in many cases it occurs because the organizations are in such need of help (particularly in these dire times) that they are themselves unable to effectively organize their own volunteer efforts. I have found, time and again, that the volunteer who is persistent and understanding of organizational shortcomings is the most valuable.
    For those of you who are committed enough to read this blog, I'd offer the following charge: Find a needy organization and Volunteer to be a Volunteer Coordinator! There are so many struggling non-profits who would benefit from such a capacity building contribution. Go be a Volunteer leader!

    Jun 01, 2009
  • I did that once -- and wound up in an orientation meeting, then being sent to sort paperwork!

    Jun 01, 2009
  • Sometimes people don't really want help. They just think they do! Unfortunately the reality is you have to be involved in an organization for a while to figure out what is actually needed. Otherwise the idea of volunteering to be a volunteer coordinator is a good one.

    Jun 02, 2009
  • Anonymous

    What an amazing comment! I manage over 1350 volunteers per year and find that some fall through the cracks in spite of my wanting nothing more than to make them ALL happy and engaged. I would give anything to have a volunteer offer to help manage volunteers. Generally I recruit interns to help me. Also as a side note, I feel SO bad if a volunteer feels ignored and take very seriously trying to call them back or respond to emails as soon as possible. This week I spend five consecutive days wading through over 200 emails that just kept growing and growing. I love volunteers like this gentleman who are willing to speak up and still come around once they know we are willing to make things right. To all of my fellow Volunteer Managers... Hang in there. If you are one who has not sought out professional development in this field and are not doing everything to treat volunteers well and with respect then perhaps think about another line of work or be willing to learn.

    Feb 03, 2011
  • I am not looking for anything but to give time and actual work. I was an EMT, a volunteer fire fighter, a construction manager, a Pipefitter, and now a BIM manager. I have a pressure vessel license, autocad certified designer, a 4.0 student and I want to actually help. I am so frustrated that every (reputable) website) wants donations, can help you find a job, travel for free, etc. Are there real opportunities to volunteer? It's truly frustrating trying to actual help with your hands; why is this so frustrating? I don't have a story for everything I've tried because I don't know where to start. Any help is appreciated.

    Oct 30, 2015
  • If this forum was "can you top this" I'm sure I'd win!
    I was fortunate to be able to retire at 52 after a career in accounting and computer applications in business. For 13 years I've tried VERY hard to volunteer to do some work that might use my business background more than my hands. The considerable effort of finding volunteer gigs of 3 to 5 days a week have resulted in only a few connections. This even includes non-profs to which I have been a consistent donor.
    Had I known there would be this much headwind, I would have rethought my retirement.

    Jun 01, 2009
  • Martin is right to challenge nonprofits to utilize the power and potential of volunteers more effectively. It's part art and part science to work with volunteers, but from experience I know that the right match between a volunteer and a project lets magic happen.
    Katie Ragazzi
    Founder, Escondido Children's Museum
    Executive Director, Escondido Education Foundation

    Jun 01, 2009
  • Having worked in volunteer/pro bono consultant recruitment and also having volunteered with several nonprofits over the past few years, I definitely feel for Martin. I agree that the level of organization and service given to volunteers (or potential volunteers) varies greatly from organization to organization.

    With the current economic downturn's "silver lining" of under-employed people looking keep busy, baby boomers retiring, and Obama's call to service, a lot of attention is being given to the current surge volunteerism and service opportunities in America. It seems the coordination and execution of this service is wildly inconsistent. Why aren't we creating a common set of standards and expectations around volunteerism?

    This is my short-list of volunteer-related standards, to add to Martin's four questions above:

    For Volunteer Managers/Recruiters:

    1. Good volunteer programs shouldn't waste anyone's time. Expectation-setting between volunteer managers and volunteers from the very beginning is a crucial step.

    The more information from the get-go, the better! If a volunteer goes to a well-organized orientation and gathers enough information to decide that an opportunity isn't a good fit, just as Martin decided that he'd have to put in too much time at the neo-natal clinic before getting to work with babies, then that's not necessarily a bad thing.

    Don't waste your time either: think about the skills and qualities you want your volunteers to bring to the table. Create standards. Feel empowered to say "thanks, but no thanks" when potential volunteers don't meet those standards. At the Taproot Foundation, where I currently work, my team has to decline the majority of people who sign up with us right off the bat because their skills aren't an exact fit for the tasks we need accomplished over the next year. Does that mean we're turning away people who want to help us for free? Yes it does. Does this put us in a position to best leverage the talent of our existing volunteer pool? Absolutely.

    2. Say "THANK YOU". I know Martin already brought this up, but it's important. It's a lot easier to thank your best volunteers than it is to replace them because they feel under-valued. And it makes everyone involved happier. There's no reason not to show your thanks as often as possible.


    1. Approach great volunteer opportunities like you'd approach a good job opportunity. Think of how many resumes, cover letters, interviews, networking events, and research to you have to endure in order to land a decent job. It's a huge investment-- but for the right job, it's worth it. Now think about your ideal, long-term volunteer position: if you're like most people, you want an opportunity that interests and stimulates you, and/or utilizes your skills, personality, and/or intelligence. These opportunities are long-term. They're probably not going to fall into your lap-- be prepared to put in a lot of time, effort, and patience before you find your perfect match. Can this be discouraging? Yes.

    2. Don't have the patience for all that? Find a one-time opportunity through Hands On Network or One Brick!! It's probably not going to change your life forever or take advantage of your amazing skills and intellect, but hey, your life will be simpler and you won't have to make a huge commitment or go through a possibly frustrating vetting process. Nothin' wrong with that.

    3. You're allowed to say no. Create a set of standards for the volunteer opportunity that you want. Stick to them. Feel free to take your time in order to find the organization and opportunity that best suits you. Don't like the commitment, or the way you're treated? Don't put up with it.

    Melanie Damm
    National Recruitment Manager- Taproot Foundation

    Jun 01, 2009
  • This is the kind of generic advice that people ignore. Martin's comments are much more real than this kind of thing.

    Jun 01, 2009
  • People ignoring this kind of advice are the problem. no one wants to work with "volunteers" who act entitled and can't accept that it's not a perfect system.

    Jun 01, 2009
  • I've been a volunteer and the person in charge of coordinating volunteers. There's often a vicious circle:
    80% of all volunteers at the small and less formal projects I gravitate to are flaky, use up the organizers time and then disappear (and nonprofits never talk about these folks in their newsletters or fund-raising)
    So nonprofits (especially small ones) get tired of worrying about volunteers, and don't provide them with anything serious to do until they've proven themselves.
    Then serious people get tired of volunteering. Obviously hospitals and foodbanks use volunteers in large numbers, fitting them into slots. But many start-up nonprofits -- that would provide amazing experiences and are desperate for help -- give up. From limited personal experience, this seems to be worse in bigger cities (and California).
    I'd love to see *volunteers* turn the table and show up with a few questions for the people they're about to work for. Anyone want to work on a list together?
    "Am I treated as part of an organization or assigned a task? Does this change at some point?"
    "What is the relationship between staff and volunteers? Are volunteers assistants to staff -- we take instructions and do the simpleminded work? Or since staff are getting paid, they do the boring work and we do the more inspiring work? Or?"
    I've been playing with the idea of a "Volunteer Union" and volunteer resume. Something that goes in both directions: helping both parties lock down a clearer commitment. And allowing someone to earn a reputation/resume as a volunteer so they aren't expected to "pay their dues" as a junior volunteer before they are given enough trust and training to do the interesting work.
    Anyone want to play with me?
    Stephen Cataldo
    info -- at --

    Jun 01, 2009
  • Mr. Gorfinkel and others like him are a valuable resource.
    The nonprofits he interacted with should be grateful for his discretion -- he didn't name names. What some nonprofits seem to miss is the public relations opportunity they have in a group of satisfied volunteers. Who could be a better ambassador for your organization than a volunteer who is supportive of your mission and seeing first hand how you work to uphold it.
    It is incumbent on nonprofits that rely on volunteers to pay attention to the recruitment process as well as the care and nurturing of their volunteers.
    In 2007 I presented a program on The Difference a Position Description Makes – In Recruiting, Engaging, Retaining, and Getting the Most from Volunteers for the Illinois Conference on Volunteer Administration. It was a call to action for nonprofits to focus attention on their volunteers. Here is a link to a white paper of the same title:
    Amy Wishnick
    Principal, Wishnick & Associates, LLC

    Jun 01, 2009
  • I also was discouraged by negative volunteering experiences. Many years ago I volunteered at an organization that enabled foreign students to practice spoken English. They asked me to commit to 10 sessions at least once a week & I did. However, the students I was assigned kept cancelling on short notice. Each week it was something different. Maybe they really had many emergencies, but my term of service was getting stretched into months and I felt my time was totally disrespected. I resigned. Nobody asked why or seemed to care. One other time I volunteered to be a tourist greeter of foreign visitors. I thought my fluency in French would be useful. I went for an initial interview but training was extensive and mostly during the day & I work full time. Also the person in charge clearly kept all the plum assignments for herself. Human perhaps, but not very attractive to me. After many months I finally was called for an evening training session but by that time I was no longer available. Maybe I'll try volunteering again some time when life is less busy.

    Jun 02, 2009
  • I completely agree with Martin. I have tried volunteering with many organizations and have had many of the same experiences. I think that volunteers get really tired of being jerked around and at some point need a volunteer coordinator who is going to work hard to draw them in. I worked for a statewide organization once that modeled the idea: we shouldn't have to give you anything for volunteering because we are just that awesome! I think a lot of people forget about simple customer service. No matter how awesome you think your program is or how unreliable potential volunteers are you still need to be respectful and provide a great customer service attitutde. This will get the buy in from the volunteers and will present a great organization in terms of what they can offer the public not what the public can offer them.

    Jun 02, 2009
  • I'm stunned by the degree to which Martin's article has struck a chord with frustrated volunteers. Nonprofit people have all the advice they could ever want about how to treat volunteers. So why don't they do it right? In a similar way, it's not enough to lecture people to stop smoking or lose weight . . . we have to ask ourselves: what would actually HELP people change since lecturing them about "shoulds" doesn't work?

    I'm ashamed to say that I've sometimes abused volunteer time in ways I wouldn't have treated paid staff.  In a future issue I hope we at Blue Avocado can address the issue of making a difference in how nonprofit staff leadership understands the strategic importance of volunteers and volunteerism.


    Jun 02, 2009
  • I cannot tell you how this resembles stuff that has happend to me. I have eagerly called organizations to offer help, been given initial interviews - only to never be contacted again! Yes, I could be the one to call back and follow up, but if they don't really know how to use me , then I am reluctant to push my way in. I think utilizing volunteer labor is not easy, so non-profits should have some focus around how best to do that.

    Jun 02, 2009
  • As for calling back or trying to contact a Vol. Coordinator by email when "left in the lurch"  after what seemed a positive interview, I did!  Twice.  And, whoever referred to volunteers as Flakes deserves a 3-day inservice  in an un-airconditioned room on Sensitivity to People  Currently Less Powerful than You (think you are).


    Jun 02, 2009
  • A service opportunity that needs to be highlighted is participation in a service club. I belong to a Kiwanis Club whose focus is hands-on projects, mostly benefitting organizations that serve children. In addition to having many volunteer opportunities in the community through Kiwanis, I learn about organizations that need and appreciate volunteers. --Judy

    Jun 02, 2009
  • My experiences did make me think that maybe I was being too sensitive and too picky about volunteer work - the responses make it clear that I am right and that it is a real problem.
    Thank you for all the comments.
    Martin Gorfinkel

    Jun 02, 2009
  • Having been on both sides - as a volunteer and as an employee of organizations that accept volunteers - this discussion has reinforced a sad idea that has settled with me over the past few months. . . to be in included in meaningful volunteer work, a person must be retired (having plenty of uncommitted time) allowed by an employer to volunteer on company time (whether or not it's related to the job) or be independently wealthy and not employed (again - uncommitted time). I'm about to give up on a couple organizations that I love but that consistantly schedule meetings and training sessions only during regular business hours so as not to inconvenience their staff members. I've also become disillusioned with local organizations that ignore local people who have expertise in areas but bring in people from outside who are no more qualified or knowledgable. I know of many people, including myself, who continue to work on issues and causes but do it solo rather than through an organization. There are lots of us who want to give more than our money.

    Jun 02, 2009
  • I'm just curious. Is this the Martin Gorfinkle whose parents were volunteer "godparents" at Homewood Terrace? If so, hello, Martin from a former resident of cottage 22.

    Jun 02, 2009
  • I agree with the sentiments expressed by Martin. As an agency that uses volunteers in a variety of roles with older people, we have to ensure we protect our vulnerable clients. This means good screening and orientation and clarity about what the volunteer is offering and enjoys. We recognise that it must be a win win for both of us and that unless we can slot the volunteer into a position quite quickly, they will go cold. There is no such thing as a free volunteer - they all need good management. I liked the comment that if that Management is non existant, then there was an opportunity to offer the same. Volunteering has so much going for it, especially in retirement, to keep up the social connectedness and the challenge to learn new things and meet new people, that it is a shame when under-resourced organisations are not positioned to maximise it. Keep up the good work.
    Love the newsletter. Its interesting to see that these are global issues.
    Janferie Bryce-Chapman
    Executive Officer, Age Concern North Shore, New Zealand

    Jun 02, 2009
  • As one who has over 30 years of volunteer service behind me and has often had to rely heavily on volunteer staff in my organizations - the organization frequently forgets they must make twice the effort to entice and maintain their volunteer staff. Paid employees are just that - they show up everyday because of the need for a paycheck, benefits, or whatever. They need the employer as much as the employer needs them. - Volunteers don't need us - we need them! They come to us offering, for nothing more than a pat on the back and an occasional lunch if they are lucky. We give them the grunt work our paid staff won't do for whatever reason. And they do it willingly! Many times, my volunteers are the one who come early, stay late, and say thank you at the end of the day. The (non-profit) organization is only as good as the volunteer force - they can make you or break you in idle conversation alone, not to mention if they are on the warpath over a particular incident. The relationship of organizations and volunteers is much like a house of cards - when we can stand together - we are very strong - but, let one person fall away (unhappy) and the whole organization can come apart. That being said, not all volunteers or organizations are model examples. As with any situation the key is the right person for the task. When we care for our volunteers and respect them at least as much as we do our paid personnel - we have the volunteer force that will enable us to thrive. And, occasionally we end up with one or two who may not be a good fit for us, but are for someone else. This is where referrals are key - Everyone one can end up happy. If you really want to volunteer for a particular organization keep at it. If your goal is to volunteer, keep looking until you find the right place - you will. For organizations - just remember - your volunteer force is really your backbone. Good luck to all!

    Jun 03, 2009
  • Thanks for posting this. It was very helpful for me. I run a small non-profit. I started it six years ago with no prior experience. (I used to be an engineer -- saw a need in the community so started our organization.) We are a 100% volunteer organization and 95% of our volunteers are also our clients.

    One of my biggest challenges has been learning how to design our volunteer opportunities and how to manage our volunteers -- taking into account that situations change quickly in our volunteers' lives and so does their ability to fufill their volunteer comittments. Even our most reliable volunteers have to "flake" sometimes. Once I figured that out I was able to design tasks so they tolerate as certain amount of flakieness. Also I figured out I needed to do a whole lot better job defining volunteer tasks, setting expectations and training volunteers. To me the bottom line is -- if my volunteer program isn't working it's my fault. If I can't design something that meets my volunteers' needs as well as our organization's needs, then I guess we're not going to get too many volunteers.

    Thanks for all the good insights. -- Cassie

    Jul 14, 2010
  • Martin - I have only one question?
    Would you move to my town?
    Gail McCarthy

    Jun 03, 2009
  • As a volunteer and a volunteer manager (two separate organizations), I have learned that it is so important for volunteer recruitment to mimic excellent Human Resources guidelines. This includes everything from written job descriptions and top-notch advertisements to an objective interviewing process and mutual evaluation of "fit." Organizations that do this will stop collecting bodies that only distort their volunteer pool numbers and create disgruntled, unused volunteers.
    Think about it: do you want 700 "bodies" with 10% usable volunteers or 70 volunteers you see every month? As in philanthropy, volunteer management is all about creating relationships that develop and last. Without that relationship, people who donate their time and/or money will only give you the minimum.
    P.S. Disgruntled volunteers: come work with me! I say "with," because I never ask anyone to do what I don't do/have never done.

    Jun 03, 2009
  • Beautifully said! It IS all about "creating relationships that last" -- I know I have been discouraged when volunteering by organizations that don't bother to introduce themselves or get to know the volunteers at all -- I am more likely to create a long-term relationship as a volunteer and as a donor if I feel valued & respected.
    --Blue Mudbhary, SF

    Nov 23, 2009
  • We've had success doing exactly that - job descriptions, recruitment, interviews, reference checks, evaluations. It takes a lot of time but we use it as a supervision training opportunity for our junior staff - they run the whole process, with senior staff coaching them on selecting and supervising the volunteers appropriately and effectively. The junior staff members love it - they learn A LOT about the challenges of supervision, and have a much better sense of what makes for a good cover letter, resume, and interview. They also learn how to document and give good feedback. Meanwhile, we generally get the right volunteers, who bring value to our organization and get something meaningful out of the experience. Cynthia Freeman Community Partners

    Sep 14, 2010
  • Wow - how great that so many are moved by this conversation! I think, regardless of which side of this volunteer debate you might sit on, we've proven just from this chain that volunteerism is an issue of great complexity and also great potential.
    I would like to heartily second Melanie's comments (Taproot). At Volunteer Vancouver, we have been a student of volunteerism since 1943. And we agree that today is not yesterday and a new way of working with volunteers has dawned. In the past, volunteers were often thought of as an extra pair of hands - but today we all have the opportunity to gain so much more than that by engaging their heads. One of our volunteers coined our new favorite phrase - "knowledge philanthropy".
    My grandmother would have answered your phones for 2 hours a day every Tuesday for 20 years. But those generations are gone. Now we train organizations to create volunteer roles that are as unique as the volunteers. Sometimes a volunteer's job might only last a few hours, and sometimes years longer than most staff, but either way they are part of the personnel that bring us closer to fulfilling our mission. And by engaging them in the unique ways that work for them and bring value to us - we are doing so much more than our balance sheet would lead you to believe.
    A volunteer is different than an employee because of their pay grade. Not because of what they are or are not capable of contributing to our organizations. If we create ways for them to contribute - they will. I think everyone will agree that the organizations that were unable to engage Martin well have one thing in common - an incredible missed opportunity.
    By the way - my organization just published a short book called A People Lens: 101 Ways to Move Your Organization Forward. It tells the anecdotal stories of the amazing ways volunteers can contribute to an orgaization. And it gives 101 ideas of volunteer roles for your organization. It's for sale in PDF format on our website, but if you email me, I am happy to share 20 copies with the readers of this article for free. (don't tell my ED!)
    Virginia Edelstein, Program Director at Volunteer Vancouver (

    Jun 04, 2009
  • I too have been on both sides - volunteer and volunteer coordinator. The best volunteer experience I have witnessed was at a nature center I worked for. I was not the volunteer coordinator - that was someone else. But everyone on the staff enjoyed working with the volunteers and our volunteers seemed genuinely happy and eager to help. I think what really worked was the fact that we did not mandate how many hours they had to work. We also did not have training sessions. We basically let the volunteer decide what they thought they would be comfortable doing and then either a staff person or another volunteer trained them. I know many professional volunteer coordinators will probably shudder at this method, but they truly were they happiest group of volunteers I have ever worked with. Whenever we needed help, they were there - and still are! The retention rate is and was amazing.
    In another situation, volunteers had to commit to a certain amount of hours a month. If they did not fulfill their hours they could be fired. They also had a lot of training to go through and could only do very specific jobs, even if they were interested in other possible jobs. Understandably, the training requirements do need to vary depending on the sort of volunteer job the person is committing to.
    I find the mandatory hours method especially hard for people who work full time and even for retired folks who do like to go on vacation and have other interests. Nothing is worse than making someone "volunteer" when they have other things they need to attend to without worrying about being fired.
    I myself could never volunteer at a place that demanded a certain amount of hours because I work full time as an ED.
    Just my two cents.
    Good discussion.

    Jun 05, 2009
  • Sadly our organization has had bad experiences. The most egregious was the volunteer who stole a company credit card out of a staff member's wallet in her purse in her office under her desk. We now do background checks for office volunteers. Sorry about being bureaucratic.
    For those who don't like the tasks assigned, sadly those are the very tasks we need volunteers to take on. Assembling packets for clients, data entry, decorating tables at events... DONORS want their dollars to go to clients and programs. So for us to keep our overhead costs down, we need those who will do thankless (hopefully not in our case) tasks.
    Maybe stuffing envelopes will allow me to get to know you and then find a more creative place for you perhaps on a valuable committee or as a board member. But we need to know you first...

    Jun 08, 2009
  • An assessment from a volunteer's perspective:
    I haven't read ALL of these comments, but I am moved to report that I have had some EXCELLENT volunteer experiences with flexible organizations that encouraged and recognized the value of volunteer labor. I've also had one major stinker of an experience. I can't actually explain what accounts for the differences. But reading this article helps me to appreciate the organizations and experiences I have had.
    From sales and ushering at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, to the Riverside Resource Center for Non-Profit Management where the ED actually utilized my PhD skills in grant writing, brainstorming, etc, to animal care at a state historic park, producing newsletters, supervising reforestation and more. These organizations also allowed me to bring in my children to work as well.
    Frankly, I wouldn't want someone handling my own infant or grandchild who didn't have excessive experience and background checking. Ok, so it may have been a bait and switch, but some organizations really need to have long term commitment.
    I see the purpose of volunteering as to perform some kind of service that needs to be done - to help out. I worry that if organizations, especially shoestring non-profits, cater to the needs of volunteers, they risk becoming distracted from the needs of who or whatever they exist to serve. I don't need the "volunteer of the year" award hoopla. A job done, task completed is my salary.
    Perhaps the job of the would be volunteer is to find the situation that most suits him or her. I really don't see this as the purpose of service oriented organizations. I have been unable to obtain full time employment (so I'm probably problematic in some way) but I have found many volunteer positions that allow me to contribute and give my life more meaning for having done so.
    Suzanne in California

    Jun 10, 2009
  • I am struck by Suzanne's statement: "I worry that if organizations, especially shoestring non-profits, cater to the needs of volunteers, they risk becoming distracted from the needs of who or whatever they exist to serve." The phrase "catering to the needs of volunteers" concerns me, and highlights the attitude of a lot of nonprofits that volunteers are a necessary evil. Does she mean to say that the needs of volunteers count for nothing and only get in the way of the holy mission of the organizations served? Volunteers these days are a dime a dozen. Why take any time to treat them with respect, provide them with meaningful work (whether envelope stuffing for the annual fundraiser or mentoring a child) and show authentic appreciation for their efforts? If they don't like it, they can lump it, 'cause there's an unlimited supply of people waiting to fill those volunteer slots. Perhaps Suzanne is more developed as a human being than I am... and so doesn't expect much in the way of human kindness and respect from nonprofits.

    Jun 12, 2009
  • As the executive director for a non-profit ministry that DEPENDS on volunteers to serve those in need in our community, we continually try to celebrate and encourage our volunteers. I know we are not perfect, but we take the time (even with minimal staff) to find out what "job" would be a good fit for our volunteers. People really do want to serve, but have an extremely varied set of skills. Our job as managers of non-profits (who wish to utilize volunteers) is to match the volunteers skills and talents with a job needed to help us fulfill our mission.

    Jun 16, 2009
  • having employed paid staff and engaged well over 1500 volunteers young people over a period of some 35 years i have found the secret to success with volunteers is to match them to the task.with the skills they posess....i had a policy of never knocking back an offer of help sometimes it was almost impossible to use their help but would alway ask them to come back to me in agiven time which allowed me to have something ready meaningful for them to do.........if you say no firsdt time they are not likly to come back a second time ...treat your volunteers well and you and they reap rich rewardsozzie kev

    Jun 22, 2009
  • Anonymous

    I am sure that many non-profits don't have the luxury of having a person who does nothing but coordinate volunteers. It's probably one of many duties that they have to take care of in a given day. That is certainly the case in my organization where "volunteer coordinator" is one of the many hats that I wear.

    If you want to volunteer for an organization, you should take the time to do some research. You should find out what the organization does and check to see what sorts of volunteer positions are available and whether they would suit your interests, abilities and your schedule. It's very easy to do now that nearly all organizations have some sort of a web presence and post their volunteer opportunities on their websites.

    All too often I get calls or e-mails from people wanting to volunteer but they have no idea what our organization does or what they would be interested in doing. Quite frankly, that's a time-waster for both of us! Not too many non-profits have the time to spend trying to help you discover what it is that you want to do. Please do yourself (and us) a favour and do some homework first.

    I have never had any trouble volunteering for an organization. Because I work full-time and my time is limited, I usually volunteer for special events. I have met lots of interesting people that way and have thoroughly enjoyed myself.

    Sep 15, 2010
  • Anonymous

    I volunteered to help a startup non-profit food pantry as a grant writer and contact for government officials, after weeks of work making phone calls, picking up documents and forms for this startup and arranging for a free invitation to an other wise expensive meet and greet, the startup did not show up for the meet and greet, did not contact the people I had arranged everything with and then had the gall to tell me that I did not help them.
    Needless to say, I left their presence and told them the next time they called, asking for help, that I was not available as a volunteer. They never got their food pantry off the ground and it closed its doors. Sad.

    Sep 28, 2010
  • Anonymous

    Three comments based on 30 years of volunteer and nonprofit experience:

    -some organizations are well suited to be volunteer intensive, some are not. Situations vary.

    -for some organizations that have autonomous volunteers with great responsibility (i.e. mentoring youth, serving vulnerable clients, driving seniors to medical appointments) what feels like bureaucracy is often necessary for successful outcomes (background checks, probation periods with low responsibility, high commitment of time and schedule).

    -volunteers must always remember that the mission of the organization is not to make the volunteer feel good, but to serve some higher mission. Yes, we need to satisfy volunteers as much as possible, but volunteering is an EXCHANGE of useful service for "feeling needed."

    Dec 27, 2010
  • Anonymous

    This article is 2 years old. Does anyone remember what things were like then? We were reeling from sudden unemployment and organizations were inundated with people wanting/needing to volunteer. Even in good times, upper level management generally does not provide enough resources for volunteer management to do what they say they want them to. Overall, Vol Managers were in a difficult spot scrambling to please everyone (their mission, their volunteers, the community, their boss, etc.). I am certain things have changed since then. Just my two cents.

    Jun 08, 2011
  • Anonymous

    The hardest job I ever had was as the volunteer coordinator of a political campaign. There was really not enough work for volunteers to do, so we made up work. The volunteers figured out faster ways to do it. We could not keep them busy enough. They were smart, hard workers but not fluent in English, so they couldn't make phone calls, address envelopes, or walk precincts. I would spend my breaks crying in the parking lot. We need to admit that most volunteer programs are really ways to get people involved so they will donate to the organization. There are some exceptions, like free clinics that rely on volunteer doctors to provide specialty care, and the continuing professionalization of social services means even fewer opportunities. You can't put volunteers in charge of children without supervision or some kind of background checks. You can't send volunteers to confidential battered women's shelters or put them on a victim hotline without a lot of training. Most nonprofits do not have the resources to properly coordinate and supervise volunteers; neither government funding nor foundation grants support this activity!

    Jun 10, 2011

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