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Jan 30th, 2019

What it means to manage a skills-based volunteer like you would a consultant (and why you absolutely should)

A guide to working with skills-based volunteers.

Marissa Ferber
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In the nonprofit sector, it isn’t uncommon to remember the proverb, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” when an individual, a corporate team, or an advisor offers to volunteer their time. Because there isn’t enough time, resources, or money to do everything we need, we welcome any and ALL volunteers with open arms and assume the best of intentions. One week later, we’re spending extra time correcting, editing, and sulking over the results of that donated time, or worrying about the volunteer’s experience. I’ve heard it all and mismanaged a few volunteer opportunities myself. Here’s what I have learned.

Our time is valuable. Disappearing volunteers, projects that don’t match your vision, and anxiety about getting the most of donated support shouldn’t eat up your already limited time. It is right of you to set high expectations, have strong opinions loosely held, and you shouldn’t feel obligated to automatically take the volunteer help you’re initially offered. Be picky.

Use the following guide to take the leap and add skills-based volunteers to your team.

  1. What you need today may not be the best place to start. Updating your logo, for example, is part of a larger brand identity. Take some time to identify the big picture need before approaching a specific task. While you can tackle your logo first, you may find that you have to repeat this exercise after you create a larger brand guide, because your new graphic doesn’t fit with the overall brand vision. Strategic projects can be tough, but they sometimes make the smaller tasks quicker in the long run.

  2. Customize. Customize. Customize. Ask for what you want — there is a volunteer who will help. We’ve found on our marketplace that when organizations use our project customizer to specify what they need, this sets both parties up for constructive communication during interviews. Small, yet important details boost your organization’s legitimacy, and conveys to your applicant that their volunteer work is meaningful and will be valuable.

  3. Be picky, but be responsive. You may find that star volunteer in the first application, but it is perfectly okay to wait to find your perfect match. On average, a project typically receives about 2–3 applications before a match, mostly because organizations are being thoughtful about which applicants are the right ones to interview. Just make sure you stay on top of this so you don’t miss out on a skilled applicant.

  4. Use your interviews to assess qualifications AND set expectations. As you’re interviewing, it’s important to assess if you can work together. Be upfront about important norms like timelines, frequency, and type of communication. These are the little things that you want to address at the onset to make the journey from start to finish that much smoother.

  5. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. You’ve detailed exactly what you need in the project posting. You’ve set your norms during the interview. Consistent communication holds everyone accountable for what you’ve discussed, so if there’s a missed check-in or a misstep, you have those norms to refer back to if a course correction is needed.

  6. Don’t be afraid to give and get feedback. Honest feedback on both sides is crucial, and has the added bonus of providing great professional development for all. For organizations, giving feedback is a great way to let volunteers know that they’re on the right track. Your volunteer wants you to use the work they’ve spent so much time on. Giving them actionable feedback not only helps you, but gets them closer to this goal!

  7. The end of a project shouldn’t be the end of a relationship. When they work on your project, volunteers become invested in your mission. They can even turn into a long-term advisor or partner.

Successfully managing skills-based volunteer experiences doesn’t have to be left up to chance. With these tips, managing skills-based volunteers can be a rewarding experience, turning short-term projects into long-lasting relationships.

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