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What Every Organization Needs To Know Before Developing a Volunteer

November 07, 2001
Contributed By Nan Hawthorne

Why do organizations seek volunteer help? There is no more important
question you can ask before you initiate a volunteer program at your
organization. Your answers will demonstrate your awareness of the
potential of volunteers and define how well they will fit into and
contribute to your success.

If you believe volunteers only make you look good to the community or
are just a tradition, you will miss a great deal of the benefit a
volunteer program can offer. It is likely that you will need to
create largely unnecessary work for them, underestimate the skills
needed to contribute to your work and miss many of the sound volunteer
management principles better understood in better designed programs.

Let's start with the first very simple reason an organization, any
organization, involves volunteers:

1. There is important work to be done.

The "important work to be done" is the individual organization's
mission in the community. You must start here. Too many
organizations and their volunteer resource managers operate from the
point of view that volunteers are an end unto themselves. They put
volunteers first. In reality the organization's mission always comes
first. Volunteers, and paid staff as well, are there to serve that
purpose, not the other way around. Not only does putting volunteers
first put the organization at risk by, for example, allowing very bad
volunteers to interact with clients and the public. It robs the
organization. You cannot use volunteers' skills well unless you know
what skills are needed. To do what? To do the important work that
has to be done.

Once you identify the important work your organization is doing,
you can begin to understand what role volunteers can play.

2. Volunteers are part of the best way to get that important work done.

That is, they are much more than just free labor. If you recruit
for skills, you can find people who will be happy to offer them. You
simply could never pay for the talent and knowledge these volunteers
want to give you.

They can bring material help through their extended contacts in
your community. They have access to resources from their employers or
their own businesses. They know journalists, civic leaders and
philanthropists. They know what the community beyond your four walls
thinks about what you are doing.

They bring money. Not only are volunteers generally devoted
donors as well, they raise money for you just through their enthusiasm
about what you do. The public relations extends to people who,
looking for a worthy destination for their money and time, see that
you have a thriving volunteer program, evidence of wise use of their
donations in a world where charities are not always trusted.

It is a mistake to underestimate the freshness a volunteer brings
to an organization. While staff can become inured to the routine,
volunteers' focus, commitment and enthusiasm can energize and refocus
staff and make them happier and more productive.

Pay attention to the fact that we said "part of the best way."
All-volunteer organizations, they are not always the most effective in
solving community problems. But because volunteers can bring in more
and different skills and resources, having a volunteer program allows
you to get your important work done more effectively.

If you understand the potential of a volunteer program, you will
understand that strong and skillful leadership is a key ingredient.

3. Good volunteer management makes sure that important work gets done

Effective volunteer management makes sure you do not waste time,
money, resources, good will and people. To make sure the
organization makes best use of these valuable voluntary human
resources, its leaders must recognize that it is that not just anyone
can manage a volunteer program. Volunteer resource management is a
set of skills, tools and knowledge. Hiring and supporting a
professional volunteer resource manager is essential if you want to
get the important work of your organization accomplished in the best
possible way.

Very good! I could only watch one yet because it takes a very long time to download.
I like the idea of building infrastructures! It is so relevant!
I also like her admission that there is a need for discipline in Africa.


Re: Where is the Knowledge? by Roger_jgRoger_jg, 03 Aug 2007 05:21

If you have, time, please watch these videos

Very inspirational and educational as to where we could fit in…

Re: Where is the Knowledge? by timedesktimedesk, 02 Aug 2007 11:06

in a recent mail exchange with Ben, it striked me that many would assume that a developing community lacks knowledge, or at least some form of it. This is a rather curious belief all things considered since most have been doing pretty well until the West/North start messing up with "the South".

So, maybe there is a lack of knowledge to matters that concern what we have been doing whilst they were living their life, but to presume that they lack knowledge is rather patronizing.

This should inform us when we approach problem solving in the developing world. First we should not assume that only us have the answer to the needs of a developing community. Second we may consider first how the local knowledge would answer the problem. Third the local solution should be favored against a foreign intervention.

Obviously there is room for flexibility, but this raises a surprising question: What can we give that is of use to a local community? And do we give it best?


Where is the Knowledge? by Roger_jgRoger_jg, 01 Aug 2007 07:15

Knowing what we want to achieve is essential when defining the mission of the OVO.

Initially i suggested that the goal of this forum is to develop a scheme/organisation that will successfully deliver assistance where it is needed in a timely fashion.

The mission of the OVO will be somewhat similar but shorter To successfully deliver relevant assistance where it is needed in a timely fashion.

Of course we could built on that. What kind of assistance? (See the dedicated forums)
Where? How? What means timely fashion?

This being clarified, it should then be easier to devise appropriate mechanism. But I fear I am avoiding answering this question, only because i need your help ! So jump in and tell me what you think. Is this going in the right direction?

Re: What is a mission? by Roger_jgRoger_jg, 01 Aug 2007 04:01

Collins and Porras define a mission as "a clear and compelling goal that serves to unify an organization's effort. An effective mission must stretch and challenge the organization, yet be achievable".

What is a mission? by Roger_jgRoger_jg, 01 Aug 2007 03:57

This links to a short but informative description of what a strategic vision is.

Briefly, Burt Nanus, a well-known expert on the subject, defines a vision as a realistic, credible, attractive future for [an] organization.

A good vision can accomplish a number of things for the organization:

  • It attracts commitment and energizes people.
  • It creates meaning in volunteer's lives
  • It establishes a standard of excellence.
  • It bridges the present and the future.

Oren Harari said that a "Vision should describe a set of ideals and priorities, a picture of the future, a sense of what makes the company special and unique, a core set of principles that the company stands for, and a broad set of compelling criteria that will help define organizational success."

Collins and Porras add that

  • A good vision is idealistic
  • A good vision is appropriate for the organization and for the times
  • A good vision sets standards of excellence and reflects high ideals
  • A good vision clarifies purpose and direction
  • A good vision inspires enthusiasm and encourages commitment
  • A good vision is well articulated and easily understood
  • A good vision reflects the uniqueness of the organization, its distinctive competence, what it stands for, and what it is able to achieve
  • A good vision is ambitious

We should have no shame or fear to read or use the word "company". The efficiency of the business world can teach us a things or two and their methods can be put to good use.

What is a vision? by Roger_jgRoger_jg, 01 Aug 2007 03:51

Not everybody can afford to travel to Lao to see the light, but it happens that it is where I saw it! Seeing it is not the right description, as it was there all the time, but so blindingly obvious that it could not be named: Emergence!

Any OVO that aim to be efficient should not be organized because it relies on disorganized workers: the bee workers mentioned earlier.

What the OVO should aim at is to provide an environment for the people to be able to work together with minimal rules, interferences and dependence from a mother-like figure organisation. It should be self govern like Wikipedia is, it should broaden space rather than constrict it, it should offer a minimum number of regulatory processes but a large number of "opportunity processes".

Most fundamentally it must be based on the expectations and interests of those who contribute to it and not try to create a system framing people! On the contrary it should fit itself to the people. The OVO should not aim at framing working environments but should let them grow by themselves.

The best example here is MySpace and Facebook. MySpace is well know for a messy interface but that did not stop people joining in and making it the archetype of social networking! (despite the pre-existence of other similar but less flexible systems).

What MySpace did was to say: here is a space, here are some efficient and trendy tools for you to use, do what you want with it. People joined in, created their environment, attracted and found others with similar interests and started to exchange with one another, learn from one another. MySpace pushed the boundary of blogging one netuniverse further.

And this is what the OVO should not be doing: Re-inventing social networking, it has been done already and we are past it!

Of course I am not blind to its fault. As it is the case with blogging, assiduity and interest in developing one's space has fadded quickly in a majority of cases.

The operational rules of the OVO should be simple, limited and favoured one thing: emergence, also known as self organisation.

What all of this is about is social networking, but with an aim: philanthropy. But nothing new here. It already exists, it already happens, it already works (see Idealist for only one example), but its full potential has yet to be revealed and exploited so that those most in need can benefit from it.

Answers will come from the people, not from the tools. The answer to cutting raw meet was no the silex, but the person who came up with the idea of silex cutting, then it was only a question of craftsmanship

More to come soon….


PS: You may wonder what that has to do with Lao.. Well, it is fascinating to observe how people in a resources limited setting come up with solutions to their everyday problems and without the Internet, simply by networking. A lot has been forgotten and need to be re-discovered.

This article describes the experiences in Sauri,
One of the model villages of The Earth's Institute Millenium Village projects. It's an interesting report on what can be done based on the Official institutions concepts. It may give us a framework of where an OVO organization could fit in. One important aspect we're not restricted by the complicated planning an control mechanism UN initiatives follow. maybe one of our roles could be bridging gaps between institutions and people on the ground, more effectively than has been done so far?


"In the end, Bunde questioned whether outside experts really understand the problems in Sauri. While life had improved in the years since the Millennium Village experiment began, Bunde wondered fearfully what will happen when the project ends, “because we have become so dependent.” Change, he said, needs to be led from inside the village. “As we say here, only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.”

Given the communication challenge, a simple link to mobile phones is essential. This can be achieved free of charge if we use Now this may sound confusing, but this merges internet web pages with sms, mobile phone, instant messaging, gmail etc. By opening an account you get you're own Tweets page. Mine looks like this… Here's some ideas on how you can use Twitter

to see who's twittering there's this nifty Twittervison and ther's plenty of ways to create our own private twitter network, as the software is open source. The twitterblog is an interesting source of info on how a start up got started

a scenario….

Twitter and other constant-contact media create social proprioception. They give a group of people a sense of itself, making possible weird, fascinating feats of coordination.

For example, when I meet Misha for lunch after not having seen her for a month, I already know the wireframe outline of her life: She was nervous about last week's big presentation, got stuck in a rare spring snowstorm, and became addicted to salt bagels. With Dodgeball, I never actually race out to meet a friend when they report their nearby location; I just note it as something to talk about the next time we meet.

Here's what folks have already created

What this approach shows is that's it's not a fancy website that makes the difference, it's the ability of people to communicate irrespective their preference and available budget. Web site's are gradually becoming less relevant, it's how tools help shape your future that counts!. The merger between web and mobile phones opens up a totally different world
I am sure if we have a nerd looking at the interface he/she'lll be able to cook up a nice solution for Africa!


Instead of defining what can be achieve sector by sector, it could be useful to approach the problem withe a descriptive, limited controlled vocabulary.

Since this is all about action, the control vocabulary should be based on active verbs, nouns and a relation to a subject. I am aware it all seems a bit esoteric but let's practice…

Verb: Find (but not Search) - Identify - Contact -

Noun: Information - Person - Organisation - Means - Needs

Complement: Responsible (in charge) - Purpose

What I am heading at here, is that there is a need to very clearly frame and define the work a volunteer should be doing.


Control vocabulary by Roger_jgRoger_jg, 26 Jul 2007 09:47

More thought coming after an eventful week…

What would an office be good for in an online volunteer organisation?

Let's say:

  • screening applicant's project? Ah Ha! Project you say? Are we talking about projects here? Is it realistic to run full project with online volunteers only? Possibly. if one takes great defining what kind of project!
  • Managing resources? Hrm well.. Does someone manages Wikipedia? Yes, its users!
  • Bringing together volunteers and the community? Well, the community can self advertise and the volunteer know to read and can come forward!
  • Ensuring that projects are genuine? hard task, especially from afar, some trust is needed especially if money is not involved.
  • Fundraising? This is a very demanding administrative activity that few online organisation would engage in.

Overall there is very little use for an office and many organisations have started with minimal personal, often unpaid (see the article I referenced elsewhere) who remember the beginning of Avaaz?


An office? What for??? by Roger_jgRoger_jg, 26 Jul 2007 08:30

What would a Chief Digital Officer do at your nonprofit? It's a bigger and more crucial role than you might think. In fact, I'd argue that it's central to your survival. Here are some of his/her assignments …


I have been experimenting this model for a few months now acting both as workerbee and to some extend specialist My experience shows that this format will actually shift the amount of work directly related to the challenge, from be being a local problem with 50 %, which means the local issues automatically get devided into manageable tasks. Once you have seen how it works it becomes real fun as you start delegating more complex tasks (these will not be real problems for the professional you contact, as it's their line of work). These however can in most cases never be solved without 3 party support at a country level where the service desk has the proper contacts and is always in the know of what's going behind the scenes. That way answering trivial questions is not really a problem because the desk will not have to spend much time on research.

An added benefit is that it will identify simple actions that will increase motivation of the local community to come out and play too, who than fill in the blanks that otherwise would have been done by the workerbees themselves. To see that happen is very rewarding. It also shows that the original plan may in the end not be the solution to the problems people are trying to solve, so this concept also prevents people from wasting valuable time on mission impossible dreams, yet at the same time it offers the applicant a workable alternative.

To make this all work you don't need a fancy website, just a few simple tools like a chat box and a web log managed by the people working on the project. The output in the end can be simple email or even sms, so nobody has a learning curve finding his/her way around the activities. Behind the scenes all you have backoffice web toolkit aggregating issues and achievements into a presentable format so the PR folks can beat their drum.


I think we are on the same hymn sheet here !

Do not sell the organisation to volunteesr, sell an opportunity for the potential volunteer to put their skills at use in a rewarding action!

Move from need to resources, in other word it is the kitchen door salesman vs. the local market. In this vision some core volunteers would be in charge of pro actively contacting those with the appropriate skills, rather than problem being exhibits on the local market waiting for potential buyers!


Hi Ben: I am impressed with the "service desk per basic topic" model. It does sound like it would work with simple e-mail communication. My only reservation would be that I would hope that the people doing the ground work or "workerbees" would be sufficiently motivated to do most of the legwork themselves, and ask advice only when really necessary. The service desk should not feel compelled to be more than a consultation service, and I hope it would not be deluged constantly with trivial requests. Teresa

The " workerbees" have the biggest challenge, as they have to do the legwork, translating dreams into real live projects, without solving the problems themselves. This requires special skills, many of our vollunteers have shown to master. What they've lacked is the proper framework from within to operate. Mckinsey Company has provided a simple set of guidelines that will solve this problem. I am translating them now into a software application

Despite the multitude of problems OVO concepts have they can work if:

  • There is no learning curve
  • Professionals have easy access to problems that need to be solved and they know can be solved by investing a minimum of their valuable time by solving bottlenecks less qualified vollunteers won't be able to tackle.
  • What I mean is you need a project management structure whereby "workerbees" keep track of the basic picture and call in support from the pro's for detailed advise. I am convinced in many cases a simple email will be enough to move a project forward.
  • There is a simple service desk per basic topic, ie if banking & financing is the issue we need to have the support of banker and accountant as they speak the lingo. If you're talking about a building initiative, you need to have a resident vollunteer architect to prevent nice ideas and dreams from spiraling out of control etc. If your are setting up an ICT center try to get the support of biggest geek around to translate the plan, and prepare a proposal to the resident Telecom company. Do it once per country, and you can solve problems in multiple projects and at the same time motivate sponsors to come on board.

I am convinced we have all these specialisms within our network, but none of these folks have ever been asked to participate this way, although I have seen it happen in isolated projects, that's exactly the situation we want to prevent .

One thing is essential, don't try to sell the OVO organization, sell the challenges to problem solvers and financial partners. The OVO head office is only the engine driving progress on the ground, not a pretty billboard! and should have one goal only… to become irrelevant as soon as possible …
Just my simple vision
More later

This is an important discussion base on two previous posts on this forum, one mine one by Teresa.

It is indeed essential to know WHO are the people willing or trying to do some online volunteer. Unfortunately it is difficult to conduct a survey in this regards, but a US Survey do exist about more traditional form of OV.

The way round this is to try to define ourselves the audience we think we have, based on ourself, our friends and our experience. At least it is possible to drawn an outline of our Weekend Warrior. Of course there will always be exception… That's taken for granted!

Time: The Weekend Warrior is an active person who has limited time to invest.
Attention Span: The Weekend Warrior has a short attention span. It can be extended but overall he won't engage in long term project.
Knowledge: The weekend warrior has the knowledge of his trade and hobbies.
Skills: The skills of the weekend warrior are limited or highly technical (in another word: limited! Not useless though!!!)
Learning curve: can learn quickly or slowly but considering the limited amount of time available, tends to dislike complex systems and processes.
Motivation: parallels that of the attention span

Do you see something to add or correct. Of course we are not here talking about hard core volunteers…


Hi Roger: I agree with you that the amount of time a volunteer can give to a project will be a factor in determining its success. As you stated, the amount of time offered will be related to the motivation of the volunteer. Motivation is stimulated by a number of factors, some of which are: having some expertise/knowledge in an area or perhaps just a willingness to learn about an issue ( ie HIV in Africa, education), believing that you can offer something tangible to the project, and a group of likewise minded individuals to work and connect with. The second factor is an important one, in that, generally it is the everyday man (the weekend warrior!) who is online volunteering. Only a select few of those people will have experience in writing project proposals or business plans etc. These are difficult and very time consuming tasks, and require a fair amount of expertise. The average volunteer is not going to be interested in being asked to contribute to a lengthy project proposal if they only have a few hours of time per week to give to the project. They are not going to want to take the time to learn about the intricacies of writing successful proposals. So volunteers need to have a good comfort level with the scope of the project, such that they feel they can successfully take on and finish a task, even if it is just a small or simple one. I think we need to know our audience! As far as good group dynamics are concerned, somehow I feel that sometimes it is just fortuitous that a cohesive group of people come together online. I think it can happen, and when it does, it really has to be cared for and nourished, and that requires special skills to do.

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