When Volunteers Are a Mistake
A couple of years ago, I attended a luncheon for a local nonprofit. They had a wonderful setting, a good meal, and a great program. Personally, I felt like their program was lacking one thing. I’ll get back to that later though.
The organization was focused on domestic abuse and assisting the victims. I sat at my table with several of the leaders and board members of the organization that day. My friend who had invited me was at another table, so I was left with a choice: to be silent or to speak to the people on either side of me. And of course, I initiated the conversation with the questions you would ask of a complete stranger sharing a meal with you. One man sitting to my left was a survivor of abuse who also served on the board. I remember our conversation included us discussing why he joined the board of this organization. His story reflected a passion for helping others that came out of his experience of abuse.
This organization’s program awarded and recognized volunteers and participants of the programs they offered. They gave accolades to their board. One thing I noticed in this presentation is that the majority of these individuals were in the programs or had completed the programs as a survivor of domestic abuse. I naturally became curious.
After the program, I spoke to my friend and asked about the organization’s structure. She disclosed to me that the majority of the board of directors were those who have a passion for the organization’s mission and have been through the program. They were survivors.
My curiosity didn’t stop there, however. I asked who was in charge of finance, major donors, compliance, administration, etc. I really wasn’t trying to find out names; what I was really asking was if these passionate people have what it takes to run this organization.
What I discovered was very disheartening and applies to many grassroots nonprofits. The organization and individuals involved see a need and their passion calls them to make a difference. However, without the proper people and processes in place, it’s like starting a business without a business plan, knowledge, finances, and tools. It is not sustainable. A nonprofit must function as a business or it cannot provide the services their beneficiaries and clients need.
So, why does this seem to be such a challenge? Well, let’s just say that passion will only propel the boat so far. After that, you need to paddle. In this instance, that means someone with connections to affluent people or socially responsible companies who can financially support your organization. You will also need internal financial controls such as bookkeeping and budgeting. Additionally, you will need direction from both an Executive Director, or equivalent, as well as a Business Development role. Do you staff these roles with volunteers with passion? No!
Well, probably not. I’ll amend my answer to say: if the volunteer has sufficient skills and knowledge to fulfill those critical roles, then yes, it is a possibility. However, you have to remember that a volunteer Board of Directors and key positions in a nonprofit, must have a system of quality assurance by someone who is paid. Volunteers are wonderful. I’ve worked with all types of volunteers who have been a huge asset to the nonprofit organizations they serve. Conversely, I’ve worked with ones who fizzled or shirked their duties.
My position has always been to fulfill critical roles with paid staff. Those would include roles relating to finance and sensitive services such as those where you might need to remain compliant and prove compliance – think health or cancer support services.
As soon as financially possible, start hiring for roles such as Business Development, Community Engagement, Administration, and Program Development. That way you can surround yourself with a competent team that likely will also share your passion. There is still a place for your passionate volunteers. They are your volunteers for events, phone trees, ambassadors, speakers, and in some instances, consultants.
So, do you remember when I said that I felt the program that day was missing something? It was missing THE ASK. If you are involved in any type of nonprofit, you understand immediately what I am referring to. THE ASK is when you ask those who you’ve just wined and dined for their financial support! Every nonprofit organization must raise money or have a sustainable plan to create income.
Whoa, nonprofits can make money? Well yes. In fact, if they don’t, they have no way to deliver the services or products to those they intend to help. While I’m not an accountant, I can tell you that nonprofits with the 501c3 designation are required to report their income and to file a form called a 990 as well as obtain a Charitable Solicitation License. Form 990 is used to report how they allocated the money they raised and is available to the public.
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