Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Washing Away in a Flood of Volunteers

Has your nonprofit been overrun and overwhelmed recently with a flood of new volunteers? The New York Times reports on the influx of the unemployed into volunteer service and its effects, both positive and negative.

The two forces feeding this growing volunteerism are, of course, the recession leaving many people with more free time than they'd care to have, coupled with inspiration from President Obama's call to service.

Here in the Bay Area, the Taproot Foundation - who help with organizational effectiveness by placing skilled professionals in volunteer positions - had more people sign up on one day earlier this year than in an entire month a year ago.

For those larger organizations, who are able to properly train, manage, and use these new volunteers, this is a wonderful resource. But what hit home for me was this paragraph:
... others grumbled that the current love affair with volunteerism ... can be a mixed blessing. Smaller organizations, with staffs of fewer than 20 and no full-time volunteer coordinator, have struggled to absorb the influx, especially since many of them have simultaneously had to cut back on projects in the face of dwindling donations and government grants.

“Can you make them stop calling?” groused one nonprofit executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity...
I'm currently serving as Interim Executive Director at an agency with nine staff members. The Volunteer Coordinator left that position in December and because of budget restrictions has not been replaced. We now have a backlog of volunteers to follow up with, and limited resources to put them into positions where they can be of service.

Taproot has had to scale back on their recruitment of professionals:
“It’s like a Greek tragedy,” according to Lindsay Firestone, who manages pro bono projects for Taproot. “We’re thrilled to have all of these volunteers. But now organizations are stuck not being able to take advantage of it because they don’t have adequate funding.”
But, as much as we may complain now, we know it won't continue forever. The media focus on volunteerism will wane as another issue comes into vogue, and the economy will pick up sooner or later (sooner, please!) sending these volunteers off to their paid positions.

How we handle these eager volunteers now will greatly influence how we can use them and interact with them later.

Bertina Ceccarelli, a senior vice president at the United Way in New York, sums it up this way:
“My hope is when they decide it’s time to do something else, they have fond memories of what they learned at United Way... Maybe they’ll even become a donor..."
Of course, we all know, nobody just "becomes" a donor. Donors must be cultivated. Sending a potential volunteer away today may mean you're turning down a future donation. Something to think about.

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