How Can We Help? Nonprofit Boards and the Volunteer Program

by Melissa D. Abel, December 2003
published with permission

Executive Summary

There are huge numbers of people volunteering throughout the world today. In the United States alone, it is reported that 44% of the adult population volunteered with a formal organization in 2000, which amounts to 83.9 million adults (Giving and Volunteering in the U.S, 2001). These adults volunteered approximately 15.5 billion hours of service in 2000 alone, at a value of $239.2 billion. Volunteers provide much-needed resources to nonprofits in a time when many agencies are trying to adjust to budget cutbacks and a growing demand for services.

In many nonprofit organizations, volunteer management is seldom a topic that comes up when discussing the role of the board of directors. And it is true the board should not be involved in the day to day operations of a volunteer program, just as they would not be involved in any other daily operations of an agency. However, the board should consider the success of an agency's volunteer program to be as much a part of their responsibilities as they would the agency's financial success.

This report will look at ways in which a board of directors can support the agency's volunteer program. There are two main areas that will be discussed: the support of an existing volunteer program; and the board's role in the creation and implementation of a new volunteer program. Both of these areas have obvious roles that an agency's staff would carry out, but the board is just as important in their support of and participation in each to ensure that an agency is utilizing volunteer resources to their fullest extent.

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Existing Volunteer Programs

In an organization that already has a formal volunteer program in place, there are still many ways that the board of directors can provide support. From marketing the program to providing formal evaluations of volunteer services in the agency, the board can do much to ensure the success of an existing volunteer program.

At the most basic level, board members should be called upon to include mention of the agency's volunteer opportunities when speaking about their agency in the community. Many board members talk up their agency to associates, friends and family, and the community at large, and consider it part of their duties as a director of the organization to promote the agency and its services to the public. However, they often overlook a key piece of information that they could impart to the public when they neglect to mention what volunteers do for the agency and what volunteer opportunities exist. Just as many agencies make sure their board is prepared with sound bite information or materials to hand out detailing what it is the agency does, the volunteer director should make sure that they have access to volunteer brochures or other information about the volunteer program to disseminate to the public as well. Board members are volunteers themselves, and can use their position as advocates for the agency to spread the message that their agency welcomes and needs volunteers to carry out its mission. If board members mentioned volunteer opportunities whenever they discussed their agency in the public arena, imagine how much exposure that would mean for an agency's volunteer program.

The board can also assist with recruiting new volunteers for the agency. An existing program should be able to analyze agency data to see where additional volunteers could be utilized to help stretch the agency budget. Once gaps are identified, the board can help with identifying potential sources for qualified volunteer candidates. It may be that an agency has determined that it could utilize volunteers to teach a life-skills course on basic financial planning and management to its clients. It so happens that this agency has on its board a certified public accountant (CPA). This board member could use her professional contacts to reach out to the area CPA association on behalf of the agency in an attempt to recruit a number of volunteers to take this program on as a community project. These volunteers could then write the curriculum, publicize the program to agency clients and staff, and provide weekly training seminars to agency clients on such basic things such as check book management, household budgeting, and annual tax filing. This is just one example of one of the many ways a board can be a recruiting tool for an organization.

Evaluation, one of the cornerstones of a successful agency, can also be an area where a board should be connected with regards to the volunteer program. A responsible agency should be constantly evaluating its services to monitor their effectiveness, and the board would naturally review this data as a part of its regular governance duties. The volunteer program should also be evaluating its services, including the perception of its volunteers on their experience with the agency, and this data should also go to the board for review. The insight that the board can get from volunteers, who have access to agency information in a way different from both staff and clients, is equal in value to any other information the board can get when evaluating an organization. Volunteers offer a unique perspective that makes them a valuable source of information to the board (Ellis, 1999).

The best way to ensure that the board stays engaged in the volunteer program is through the use of a volunteer resources committee. The committee can be supported by agency staff members who oversee the volunteer program, and it would be beneficial to have agency volunteers (apart from the board, who are of course volunteers themselves) sit on the committee as well. The committee can set a yearly agenda of items to address, from recruitment to training to recognition. It can also fall to the committee to ensure that volunteer issues are included in the annual budgeting process and in strategic planning efforts whenever they occur for the agency. By having a committee dedicated to the volunteer program set in the board structure, an agency ensures that it will always have a reminder to the board that the volunteer program is a vitally recognized piece of the agency puzzle.

There are many ways that a board can stay abreast of the issues faced by its volunteers and their interactions with the agency, staff and clients. For the board that has had minimal involvement it might be time to step up in support in some way, perhaps by reminding board members that volunteer issues include them and that they can benefit from increased interaction with other agency volunteers through special events or board committee participation. However the board is involved in an existing volunteer program, it is critical that they keep it on their agenda as they consider current agency issues.

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Creating a New Volunteer Program

Whether an organization is relatively new and creating a volunteer program along with other new programs, or is an existing organization looking at how to implement a volunteer program into its current structure, the board can help. It is likely that a new volunteer program will bring with it the opportunity for some truly creative and innovative ways to look at how the agency will offer services to its clients. The board should take advantage of this time to make sure the foundation is laid for a volunteer program that is a true asset to the agency and one that earns the praise and buy-in of all the stakeholders of the agency, not just the volunteers themselves.

In the current economic climate, many nonprofit organizations find themselves having to do more with fewer resources. In making each dollar go farther, the value of the volunteer to an organization cannot be denied. However, it would be a mistake for an agency and its board to consider creating a volunteer program just because of budget cuts. Instead, the responsible board should be proactive and try to identify areas where volunteers can be of use to the agency before a funding crisis hits. Indeed, it is often true that a high quality volunteer program requires an allocation of funds and other resources that they agency had not anticipated. Just because a volunteer is not paid, it does not mean that the staff and agency resources to support that program do not add up (The Cost of a Volunteer). Still, in order to recruit the concerned people who are in the community to donate their expertise to the agency's cause, the board must realize that volunteer program is deserving of the increased resources. Once the volunteer program is up and running, the value of the volunteer time to the agency can be examined and it will likely prove to the board that their investment has been worthwhile.

When an agency decides to go ahead with the creation of a volunteer program, it should be a thoughtful and carefully planned process. In a recent study done in Texas, one survey respondent made note of the importance that pre-planning has in a workable volunteer program, saying "projects that work well have good preparation and good oversight" (Rehnborg & Fallon, 2001). The board can support this planning process by making sure that the agency culture is ready for a volunteer program, and by ensuring that they are ready to commit their support to providing agency staff with the resources they need to build a viable and sustainable program. When planning a volunteer program, the board also needs to make sure that it is given the respect that the volunteers giving freely of their time and expertise deserve. All too often the volunteer program is not given the value it deserves, and the agency suffers for it (McCurley & Lynch, 1996).

The volunteer program can be viewed as a cycle wherein all aspects of the program are interrelated, with a volunteer director or manager in the center connected to them all (Driggers & Dumas, 2002). The success of the program as a whole depends on each piece: volunteer positions, recruitment, staff perception of volunteers, selection and job matching, orientation and training, performance evaluation, reward and recognition, fulfillment of volunteer needs, and community perception of the agency. Both the staff and the board should agree that the board needs to be a source of support for this entire cycle, offering help when needed and appropriate at each stop on the cycle. They can help recruit, they can ensure that volunteers receive rewards and recognition, they can make sure that both volunteer and agency needs are being fulfilled. It should also be remembered that in addition to supporting the cycle of the volunteer program, the board members are also inside the cycle itself as they are volunteers themselves. In her book From the Top Down, Susan Ellis reminds the reader that board members are not to be forgotten when preparing for the agency volunteer recognition event. When looking to the board for support of the volunteer program, it might be a good idea to remind them that they are also volunteers, and the work they do is as important to the agency as the front-line volunteer who may be answering a hotline call or giving a museum tour.

Involving all of an agency's stakeholders in planning a volunteer program is an area that the board should pay particular attention to in the creation phase. Stakeholders can include the board, staff, and clients, as well as the community at large, agency partners, and the very people who are interested in doing the actual volunteer work. The board should make sure that representatives from each of these parties have a voice in the creation of a volunteer process. This process up front can avoid some of the conflicts that have been experienced by other volunteer programs such as a lack of volunteer satisfaction, resentment between staff and volunteers, or programs that are ill-prepared to handle new volunteers brought in by a new program. Including everyone at the table from the start also shows everyone the agency's commitment to volunteers and gives the program the status as an equally valuable asset to the agency afforded other departments. Including everyone in the planning of the new volunteer program will only enhance the quality of the program itself, as having multiple viewpoints and objectives included in planning will make for a thoughtful, inclusive, and hopefully more effective program for everyone.

Some of the resources needed in a new volunteer program (as well as in an existing one) include hard-to-get dollars. The board can help to make sure that the volunteer program is included in the agency budget approved by the board each year, and can assist with the research in finding funders who will support volunteer programs. While it is true that foundations willing to give money to volunteer programs are few, they do exist (UPS Foundation). Showing funders a well thought-out plan for a program and being able to show the value added to the agency and its clients will help to sell a program's merits. A comprehensive volunteer plan, and board support of that plan, can help to convince funders that an agency's volunteer program deserves their support (Justis, 2000).

Consideration of a new volunteer program can be a daunting task, but if done correctly it can provide huge benefits to an agency and its clients. The board can assist staff in the program's creation and implementation, or they might be directly responsible for its creation if the agency is still in its infancy and staff time is at a premium. What matters is that the process is complete and detailed up front, and the program that emerges will be the better for it. The long term success of an agency is the board's direct responsibility, and a new volunteer program should be planned and receive the support of the board to add to that success.

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While the value of volunteers to a nonprofit organization is an issue that is gaining interest throughout the nonprofit sector, the role of the board of directors in the issue of volunteers is often left out of the picture. The agency that is looking to create a volunteer program or to expand or update an existing program seldom looks to its board to as a major source of input, information, and support in the process. However, a board can, and in fact should, be a valuable resource in supporting volunteer services in any organization. Whether it is through a formal committee of the board that is dedicated to volunteer issues, or through just a board member talking up volunteer opportunities when talking to a group of agency donors, the board can positively impact an agency's services by giving the volunteer program the recognition and support that it is due. With all of the attention being given to the importance of giving back to the community, especially in this post-September 11th global community, non-profit boards should be aware of the value of the volunteer. And this awareness brings with it the responsibility to act in support of their agency by putting volunteers on the agenda right next to the budget or the strategic plan, right where they belong.

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  • Driggers, P. F. & Dumas, E. (2002) Managing Library Volunteers: A Practical Toolkit. ALA Editions of the American Library Association. Chicago, IL.
  • Ellis, S. J. (1999) The Nonprofit Board's Role in Maximizing Volunteer Resources. National Center for Nonprofit Boards. Washington, DC.
  • Ellis, S. J. (1996) From the Top Down. Energize Inc. Philadelphia, PA.
  • The Grantmaker Forum on Community & National Service (2003) The Cost of a Volunteer.
  • The Independent Sector (2001) Giving & Volunteering in the United States: Key Findings.
  • Justis, J. L. (2000) Show Me the Volunteerism (and I'll Show You the Money). From the E-volunteerism monthly newsletter.
  • McCurley, S. & Lynch, R. (1996) Volunteer Management: Mobilizing All the Resources of the Community. Heritage Arts Publishing. Downers Grove, IL.
  • Rehnborg, S. J. & Fallon, K. (2001) Environmental Scan of Volunteerism in Texas. The Texas Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service.
  • The UPS Foundation (2002) Improve Your Philanthropic Portfolio: A guide to investing in volunteer resources management. From the Points of Light Foundation & Volunteer Center National Network

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