Monday, July 13, 2009

Volunteers: Be consistent and long-term

Non-profits rely on volunteers. Without them, Little Brothers would have no Big Brothers. Food pantries would have no one to take in and distribute the food. In other words, most charities would find it difficult to serve without the unpaid help.

Beverly Howard knows that. She's executive director of Charlotte's 18-pantry Loaves and Fishes, with a paid staff that is equivalent to six fulltime positions. The rest of the agency's work is done by 600 volunteers.

So she needs volunteers. But hear this: She doesn't need one-timers -- those who show up for a few hours one day never to return.

At a recent meeting, that was the sentiment of the heads of several non-profits.

"We need people who are willing to make a commitment and volunteer on a regular basis," Howard said. "There are some places where we can plug one-timers into -- such as food drives -- but most of our needs are permanent needs."

Volunteers staff all the agency's food pantries. They work the phones, steering donors to the appropriate pantry. They are given one-on-one training. If they show up just once, all that training is wasted.

The average volunteer, she said, works two days a month, for two or three hours.

"They work a morning or afternoon, every other week," Howard said. "We're happy to get people, we rely on volunteers, but they need to be of continuing help."

Brett Loftis, head of Council for Children's Rights, would rather have a volunteer who worked an hour or two each week, than one who worked eight hours one and then was a no-show.

"We have over 200 advocates who go through an eight-hour training and a background check and must commit to being with a child for a year," Loftis said. "We wouldn't want a mentor or advocate to come in for two meetings with a child and then never show up for the kid again.

"That's not fair to the child."

If you're thinking about volunteering, the non-profit chiefs have this advice:

Find your passion. If it's fighting hunger, find a food pantry that is equipped to get food to the hungry. Don't go off and start another food pantry.

If it's children, sign up as a mentor with a group that can make the connection.

"Find an agency that's meaningful to you," said Maria Hanlin, head of Mecklenburg Ministries. "You may end up doing something that you're not as passionate about, but you might find as much gratification by knowing you're making a difference."


Anonymous said...

Perhaps some things are best left unsaid, or unwritten. You're basically telling me that if I cannot commit regularly then I should not commit at all. The only group that should get consistency from the volunteers are the children of Big Brothers and Big Sisters, I agree. Aside from these two groups I didn't realize there were rules to volunteering something that is mine. When you pay me then it is yours. It's like a beggar bemoaning the sandwich of bologna instead of ham and cheese. You should have quietly and happily accepted what you receive rather than complain via this medium or again, limited your complaint to Big Brothers and Big Sisters volunteers. I choose now not to volunteer at all simply because I cannot give you consistency. I might've been able to give you more later on but now we'll never know, will we?

Lori said...

Thanks for raising the call for long-term service! Sometimes, well-intentioned folks want to volunteer but have a hard time getting on the schedule due to simple communication breakdowns. offers a free and easy tool that helps nonprofits of all sizes schedule both 'one-time' and 'regular' volunteers. Simple signups make it easy for volunteers to choose when they want to help, and automated email reminders save staff time and help everyone keep their commitments.

Please check us out at

DoMoreGood said...

Building on the earlier comment - here's an article by Susan Ellis about Welcoming ALL Kinds of Volunteers. The nonprofits that stretch their thinking and structures and find more ways to roll out the welcome mat will benefit from more volunteers. And yes, all long-timers start as one-timers.

VolunteerSpot,DOING GOOD just got easier

Amy Hutchison said...

I was actually just talking to someone at BBBS about this same thing the other day!

As someone who works in volunteer coordination (at the Bethlehem Center), I see one-time volunteers as a huge asset. I've had several groups of volunteers come over the summer that have knocked things off of our "to do" list that we never would have been able to do ourselves!

However, our children heavily rely on the steady tutors and mentors. Many people don't know that just one hour per week of volunteering is all you need here to help our children reach the academic successes they need! Many of our children don't have parents at home reading to them, so we look towards our volunteers to fill that need.

I'm assuming the nonprofit employee that said he would prefer long-term volunteers wasn't meaning he doesn't appreciate the one-timers, but what you have to realize is that sometimes those one-timers take a lot of staff time and effort. If you're looking for a way to help, become a volunteer volunteer coordinator (wow, that's a lot of "volunteer" usage!) Help contact volunteer groups, schedule them, make sure they have everything they need, etc... That would help much more than you know!