Volunteers with professional education or experience
There is a new breed of volunteers who are looking for ways to contribute to a non-profit organization in a less traditional and more professional way. They are people with lots of management, business or technical experience. They may be young professionals with a willingness to share their expertise, or retired or semi-retired Baby Boomers. These people are often referred to as “highly skilled” volunteers. Up until now, the best way for someone with a strong background or knowledge base in business, marketing, or other professional fields was to become a Board member – a commitment that often meant at least a 2-year term - and if the Board was a governance Board, then it also meant not much for front line opportunities.
Now, highly-skilled volunteers are offering much more to organizations in the way of:
Project or event management
Marketing and Communications
Information and technology management
Serving on ad-hoc committees
Considering the limited resources of non-profit organizations, this donation of time and expertise sounds like an amazing gift, right? In theory - yes.
The reality though, is that not all non-profit organizations are ready to accept a volunteer at such a high level of responsibility. Many non-profits and charities have gotten used to involving volunteers at levels that are more supportive to the work being done and less so in a leadership role or with such responsibility. The truth is that involving volunteers in this capacity does take some time and planning in order to properly utilize the volunteers’ skills, knowledge and expertise. If set up ineffectively, the result could be disastrous for the organization and highly frustrating for the volunteer. If thought out sufficiently, this can be a win-win situation in which the organization benefits from some great expertise and the volunteer feels fulfilled and satisfied!
Here are some tips to help highly skilled people, who are new to the non-profit and voluntary sector, and are likely coming from a private or government organization background, when considering volunteering with a non-profit or charitable organization.
1. Prepare for some resistance. Many non-profit organizations simply aren’t ready to involve and properly utilize highly skilled volunteers. The organization may feel that the reward does not match the work invested (someone – likely at a management level will have to supervise you), or they may feel like they’ll be wasting your time. Although you may be making a very valuable contribution to the organization, you could be seen as threatening to the staff, other volunteers or board members.
2. Know the size of the organization in which you’d like to get involved. Smaller organizations will usually need more help because they often have fewer resources and less capacity to grow and larger organizations will be looking for ways to expand their reach or to audit their processes. Volunteering with a small non-profit likely means building, and volunteering with a larger one means improving what they’re already doing.
3. Be honest. It’s easier for an organization to trust honest volunteers. It’s okay to say the reason you are motivated to volunteer is because you want to give back in a way that is meaningful for you. Perhaps you are looking at retirement from your current paid work and want to pursue a paid position in the non-profit sector. Maybe you want to try out something that you don’t get to do in your paid work, thereby building your resume. That’s perfectly acceptable. As well, be sure to be honest about what you can do and how much time and effort you can commit. Be clear about what you need in order to complete your project or commitment, how much time it will take, the costs to the non-profit, and your action plan.
4. Explain how your involvement will impact their work. Put together a proposal (informal is fine) and submit it to them. Show them how your involvement can support their mission and how your expertise can support and complement the work of their staff and other volunteers.
5. Earn their trust. Ask lots of questions. Don’t assume that they don’t know what they’re doing because they are small, have charitable status, or are completely run by volunteers. There is often a disconnect between the corporate or for-profit world and the non-profit sector. Each group can be suspicious of the other. Corporations are sometimes viewed as only focusing on the bottom line (which is money) and having a view of non-profits as the “poor cousin” who doesn’t really know what they are doing. On the flip side, charities are sometimes viewed as do-gooders with grand intentions but who lack the business savvy to see those intentions come to fruition and having a view of corporations as greedy and non-caring. If you are coming from that background, you will have to show that this is not necessarily your view and you can bridge those two sectors in a positive way.
6. Learn about non-profits. Research the difference between non-profit organizations and registered charities. Learn about how Boards work and the different kinds of Boards (governance or operational). Familiarize yourself with the titles of personnel and typical departments in non-profit organizations (Executive Director, fund development, volunteer resources, etc.). Learn about how non-profits can be funded (grants, private donations, foundations, events. etc.).
7. Be prepared for a different way of doing business. If you are coming from a corporate, for-profit, government, or M.U.S.H. organization (Municipalities, Universities, Schools, Hospitals) you will find that things may happen differently in a non-profit organization – especially the smaller ones. Resources are often limited in non-profits and often funds come in the form of grants and are designated for certain areas only. If you are used to a large company with an abundance of resources, a small non-profit that relies solely on fundraising revenue will be a change from your work environment. You may be surprised at how a non-profit can make a budget stretch. Or, you may be coming from a small-sized business or medium-sized business and you'll be surprised at the abundance of resources for certain areas.
8. Know the scope of your involvement. Do you want a long-term or short-term commitment? You may want to be involved in the highest level of leadership – which is often the Board of Directors or on a committee of the Board. This commitment is usually an absolute minimum of 1 year and more likely 2 years. Or perhaps you’d prefer a project-based opportunity with either a shorter commitment or an end date that you determine.
9. Careful with criticism. You may be coming to the organization as an expert, but be careful how you present yourself or share your knowledge. Constant criticism of how the organization has been doing its work is not conducive to a healthy working relationship. If things are a mess, then consider the fact that they offered you a volunteer position to help them to improve as a step in the right direction. The truth is, that sometimes people simply don’t know what they don’t know, or they are so overworked that they can barely keep their head above the water and do the best they can!
10. Enjoy yourself. Contributing your expertise can be immensely rewarding. Finding an organization that is a good fit for you and knowing you are really impacting their work can sometimes bring you a feeling that you may not be able to achieve in your paid work. You get to meet new people, support a cause that is important to you and you will likely learn as much from the organization as you are hoping to share with them.
"there are two kinds of people in this world: givers and takers.
the takers may eat better, but the givers sleep better."