Home NonprofitNonprofit Management Common Nonprofit Mistakes (And Simple Solutions) Part 2: I Asked Too Little, Then Too Much – Walking The Volunteer Tightrope

Common Nonprofit Mistakes (And Simple Solutions) Part 2: I Asked Too Little, Then Too Much – Walking The Volunteer Tightrope

by Tim Goetz

Miss the beginning of the series? Go to Common Nonprofit Mistakes (And Simple Solutions) Part 1: I Could Do It All, But I Shouldn’t.

One of the things I enjoy most about the nonprofits and churches I have worked with over the years is their commitment to volunteerism. There is incredible power in a motivated and active volunteer base, and it frequently goes hand in hand with stronger fundraising.

But even leaders of organizations with an established volunteer base still face questions. Will I burn out a great volunteer by asking them to do more? What if this important task doesn’t get done? Should a professional do this skilled task?

In truth, working with volunteers isn’t a “common mistake,” but it is a delicate balance most nonprofits get to walk. So let’s reflect on how to walk steadily on this volunteer tightrope as we follow the story of Molly through this dilemma.

Managing Nonprofit Volunteers

Hi, I’m Molly. I am the new director of an animal shelter and am learning as I go. At first, I was doing way too much on my own. If you recall from Part 1 of this series, trying to handle every project myself was about as successful as a trapdoor in a canoe.

But I saw the light: I needed to ask my volunteers to carry more weight. That should be easy, right?

One by one I listed everyday duties. Without exception, I assigned myself the most important ones that can’t afford mistakes. As I scanned the list, I noticed a problem. There were only five simple tasks for 11 volunteers to share. I knew it wasn’t enough for them to do, but I wasn’t willing to give them more yet.

Sure enough, within a week, my volunteers were complaining about having nothing to do, and they started skipping shifts. Meanwhile, I still had to-do lists coming out of my ears!

Delegating Tasks to Volunteers

So I huddled all of the volunteers up for a meeting. I asked, by a show of hands, if any of them would be interested in taking over new projects. Crickets.

Frustrated, I just started assigning projects to volunteers. I appointed social media to Jasmine, since she couldn’t seem to put her phone down. Kenny, who had a personal blog, was asked to run the website. Then I spread out the rest of the assignments among the remaining volunteers and told them to figure it out. I had about an ounce of confidence that this plan would actually work, but I was desperate and exhausted.

I had one volunteer, Janey, who actually did what I asked. She was great with the animals and went above and beyond. However, she was the exception, not the rule, so I hesitated to ask for more. I didn’t want to burn her out.

Problems Managing Volunteers

“My volunteer just posted a selfie on our organization’s Facebook page.”

I never thought those words would come out of my mouth. Panicked, I started checking the rest of the Facebook posts and found a picture with this caption: “Yay! This family shaveda dog today!”

Typos can happen to the best of us. I tried to relax, but then I saw she had also posted a video of herself driving down the road singing “Don’t Stop Believing” at the top of her lungs. Four of our dogs were in the backseat, howling along with her, none of them in crates!

Was I asking too much? Or was I expecting too much? I took another look through my task list. This time I focused on outlining more expectations ahead of time, rather than just dumping the jobs on people. I let Jasmine know I appreciated her creativity but also had some rules for her to follow. Then I spoke with four reliable volunteers and asked them to take ownership of a few areas.

Example Tasks for Volunteers

They seemed pleased to have more responsibility in areas they enjoyed, and I felt a weight instantly come off my shoulders. The facility was staying afloat, and I was able to end the first month of running the shelter with a smile on my face. Unfortunately, this feeling was short-lived, but I’ll tell you about that later.

Best Practices for Nonprofits

Let’s look at Molly’s dilemma. A volunteer posting inappropriate content on social media is a real fear for many organizations that have untrained or minimally supervised volunteers. This is why it’s important to set our volunteers up for success by assigning them the right tasks, equipping them with the tools they need, and managing them appropriately (ideally with some reasonable guidelines and expectations).

What Should You Delegate?

Delegating can be tough, especially when you are worried that projects won’t be completed to your standards (or done at all). Here are three quick rules of thumb when contemplating whether or not you should delegate a project to a fellow co-worker or volunteer.

Sample Tasks to Delegate to Volunteers

Did you check some boxes? Delegate it! If you aren’t able to check any of the boxes, then keep the project under your wing for now and consider reevaluating it at a later date.

Tips for Motivating Volunteers

Volunteers give their free hours to help your organization for many reasons: they are committed to your mission, they need community service hours, they love giving back to the community, etc.

In Molly’s case, she likely could have motivated her volunteers more if she had asked about their interests before assigning tasks. What do they want to do when they graduate? Is there a specific area where they want more experience?

So ask yourself why your volunteers come back again and again. It’s probably not just because your mission is awesome. They may be motivated by a challenge, more responsibility, feeling needed, or doing a type of task they enjoy. Make sure you know your volunteers so you can be confident they find your organization’s environment enriching. If you are interested in learning how to be better at partnering volunteers with projects based on their skills and interests, check out Capacity Commons.

Tips for Managing Volunteers

Make time for your volunteers. Your schedule can get hectic, but it’s crucial for you or another experienced person to guide a volunteer when you assign a new task to them.

  • Give clear direction for each project and make sure it is within the volunteer’s experience level. Show them how you want it done and why you are doing it. Be open to their input and incorporate good ideas as they come along.
  • Let your volunteers know that if they need help, they need to come to you ASAP. Eliminate miscommunication and remind them regularly that your door is always open for assistance.
  • Volunteers are only as good as you train them to be. If they aren’t succeeding, look at yourself first and see how you can manage them better.

Need a free tool to organize your team projects? Asana has a free app for teams of up to 15 members to assign tasks, track projects, and keep up with who is responsible for what.

Monitoring Volunteer Progress

Create a system so you (or an experienced manager) are always aware of what your volunteers are working on. Let them know you will regularly check in to track and evaluate their progress, head off problems early, and keep them moving. As you build a relationship with your volunteers, find out their strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be afraid to reassign them if you find a job that is better suited to their abilities or personality.

What Do You Think?

What has worked for you to motivate and manage your volunteers? What tools do you find helpful to keep them on task, hitting deadlines, and feeling valued? Share your ideas and feedback in the comments below. I would love to hear from you!

Up Next: Part 3

Find out what happens in Part 3 when Molly makes a big mistake that almost killed her nonprofit overnight. Hint: it involves the IRS. Learn from her experience so you can avoid the same thing happening to your organization.

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