Strategies for helping volunteers boost a not-for-profit

By Ken Tysiac

At a time when many not-for-profits fear a reduction in government grants and donations that help sustain them, they are looking for inexpensive ways to carry out their mission.

Expanding the use of volunteers may be one way for not-for-profits to find the labor and skills they need to remain successful.

“The utilization of volunteers can be very useful for your organization if thought through properly,” Nicholas Lazzaruolo, CPA, a partner at Grant Thornton LLP and a member of the firm’s national not-for-profit leadership team, said Thursday at the AICPA Not-for-Profit Industry Conference in Maryland. “The cost effectiveness is exponential.”

To maximize the effectiveness of volunteers, not-for-profits need to understand what motivates them. During a recent survey, AARP asked volunteers in Cincinnati and Philadelphia why they donate their time to the organization.

Most often, they said they volunteer because there is a need and because they can help make a difference. Not-for-profits hoping to recruit and retain volunteers can use that information to help craft their message to volunteers.

“What is the need that’s out there? You need to be able to articulate that quickly and succinctly,” John Griffin, CPA, CGMA, senior vice president and controller for AARP, said at the conference.

To use volunteers effectively, organizations need to have certain policies and procedures in place. Background checks should be similar to those performed on potential employees in the organization in the relevant area, Lazzaruolo said. For example, a volunteer who wishes to help in the finance office of a blood donation center would undergo a much different background check than the volunteer who hands out juice to donors after they give. The finance volunteer would have to be screened carefully because he or she might gain access to funds and systems that could make it easy to commit fraud.

Risk profiles should also be considered, as the not-for-profit’s risk management policies and procedures also should be applied to volunteers, Lazzaruolo said. For instance, volunteers who are working with youth should receive training and supervision appropriate for their duties. Onboarding training and liability and casualty insurance for volunteers also should match their responsibilities. “This should all be part of the policies and procedures of the organization in terms of running any other program that they have,” Lazzaruolo said. “It’s just transferring over to the volunteers. So if you take a step back, it’s really, how can we use volunteers as an extension of our organization and staff?”

The policies and procedures lay the foundation for volunteers to help while minimizing risk. But the real trick to getting maximum assistance from volunteers lies in meeting their aspirations and developing their skills:

  • Assess volunteers’ talents and capabilities. This will help the organization put them in the correct roles. Quality of volunteers is important because they have the potential to cause reputational risk to the organization just as full-time employees do. “You should feel comfortable not accepting volunteers if they’re not the right fit, or not accepting them for that role,” said Jen Hoffman, CPA, partner-in-charge of Grant Thornton LLP’s New York Not-for-Profit practice. In some cases, a different role that better matches a volunteer’s skills can be offered.
  • Find the leaders and high performers. Many times, the most promising volunteers already have held leadership or high-performing positions in their job away from the not-for-profit. When the most talented volunteers are identified, they can be asked to lead other volunteers, take control of new projects, and even provide input on strategy. “Get the best people involved in the planning of the program,” Lazzaruolo said. “For you to have a successful volunteer program, you are going to have to have people who want to lead on a volunteer basis.”
  • Make sure they understand the mission. When Hoffman visited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, she was struck by how every volunteer spoke of the not-for-profit’s mission. At the facility whose prosthetic treatment inspired the movie Dolphin Tale, the volunteers unfailingly explained that the mission is to rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured marine life. Volunteers may not remember every rule in the policies and procedures manual, but if they can understand the mission, they should be headed in the right direction.
  • Make administrative work as simple as possible. Few volunteers are eager to spend their time performing administrative duties. They would rather work toward fulfilling the mission. Well-designed templates, documents, and online portals can help reduce the time volunteers spend on administration, including onboarding. “Make it as easy as you can,” Hoffman said. “Prepopulate the forms, as much as you can, ahead of time.”
  • Make mentoring available. A “buddy” program matching a volunteer with an employee can be a great way to help volunteers get familiar with the not-for-profit. “Why not allow your volunteers the opportunity to be linked with a staff person, to feel in tune with the organization?” Lazzaruolo said “... And if something is bothering them or something is positive, they have that window of communication, directly to staff.”
  • Enable flexibility. Volunteers are eager to help, but often they want to do it on their own time. Offering flexible scheduling will enable a not-for-profit to more easily use volunteers’ services. Flexibility in opportunities also is a plus. Hoffman started volunteering as a marathon runner in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Long Island Chapter’s “Team in Training” program. After she served as a participant, mentor, and training captain, she was invited to join the chapter’s advisory board, which she now serves as treasurer. These varied uses of her services would not have occurred unless the chapter got to know her and understand her skills.
  • Get feedback. Surveying volunteers on their experience with the organization is just as important as surveying employees. “You want to make sure that your volunteers are getting the experience that they want to get,” Lazzaruolo said. And when a not-for-profit gets feedback, it’s important to listen and address any problems that are identified.

Reaching the goal of attracting and retaining good volunteers can have a big effect on a not-for-profit’s sustainability. Getting volunteers engaged for the long term can provide a tremendous boost, and Lazzaruolo said organizations should remain focused on keeping the best volunteers for years. Griffin even recommends including volunteers’ children when possible, in hopes that they will become interested in the mission.

“As an organization, maybe you invite the kids,” he said, “because you plan to be around for a long time, and you want them to be a part of that experience.”

Ken Tysiac (Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA editorial director.

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