What to do when charities mismanage their volunteers.

Advice on how to make the world better.
June 30 2010 7:06 AM

How Can I Help?

What to do when a charity mismanages its volunteers.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

Woman shrugging.
How can volunteers be of help when charities blow them off?

Dear My Goodness, I'm a twentysomething legal assistant who was very involved in charity organizations in college. I'd like to volunteer one evening a week, but I'm getting discouraged because some version of the following keeps happening. The organization gets back to me and asks whether I'll send my available dates and times to set up an interview. I do so immediately but don't hear back from them for weeks. Then someone from the charity e-mails with "thanks for your patience." We set up a time for a phone interview, and they don't call.

—Amy, Washington, D.C.

Dear Amy,
My Goodness has received dozens of letters like yours. Sometimes the letter writers have advanced to getting an assignment but ended up feeling underused and underappreciated.

Here is the most crucial piece of advice: Once you've identified a charity you care about with projects that fit your schedule and location, find out whether they have a paid staffer whose sole duty is "volunteer coordinator." There's a certain irony here—that it takes a paid person to deal efficiently with people who want to work for free and out of the goodness of their hearts.

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There are places, religious congregations notable among them, that handle volunteers well without a paid supervisor. But you greatly increase your chances of a good experience by dealing with a full-time staffer who can provide organization and continuity, and who has a gift for matching a volunteer's skills and desires with appropriate work.

Volunteering seems like such an angelic act; there's a tendency to forget that to make the deal work, you're going to need to be practical and assertive. So to make sure you don't get overlooked again, contact the volunteer coordinator and make an appointment to get yourself over to the actual building and meet him or her in person. At that meeting, set up a schedule for your next contact or assignment, rather than relying on them to call you. 

Almost every big city has a clearinghouse where volunteers can find interesting work with vetted charities. Where you live, Greater DC Cares maintains a database of ongoing volunteer projects that is easy to browse. A quick search found a few interesting jobs, including one responding to letters from prisoners requesting books. Sure, the postage aspect would be tedious, but it'd be fascinating with your background in law to find out what prisoners are thinking about. (Legal help? Travel?) Greater DC Cares can also train you to lead a project—excellent to list on your résumé or a law-school application.

The paid volunteer managers I spoke to this week told me there's a definite trend in volunteer recruitment—to identify and use efficiently people with particularly valuable skills. A certified public accountant, for example, might be encouraged to help in the finance department rather than clean a beach. (Though he or she might prefer to be out on the sand.) You may be gratified to learn how useful and appreciated your legal office experience is.

I understand your initial frustration at not being signed up promptly when the volunteering spirit struck you. However, Amy, do take a look at things from the charity's point of view—how hard it is to screen potential workers (no child abusers to the day care center) and move the approved ones in a timely fashion to an appropriate spot. It's also difficult coming up with truly useful projects, and the requisite tools, for workers who are not guaranteed to show up. (Common occurrence: 100 paintbrushes, 100 gallons of paint; 70 out of the promised 100 painters don't materialize.) Obviously charities are always trying to figure out the best volunteer systems. There are several current books about volunteer needs, including, no kidding, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Recruiting and Managing Volunteers.

Charities using volunteers often also have to deal with an unfortunate volunteer mind-set. Nonprofit expert Peter Frumkin, professor at the University of Texas School of Public Affairs, says this is commonly known in nonprofit circles as  "the ladle syndrome." It's a reference to the people who show up at Thanksgiving and Christmas hoping to fill soup bowls. "They want the psychic satisfaction of being on the front line in a good spot," said Frumkin, co-author of Serving Country and Community: Who Benefits From National Service?At Habitat for Humanity, he noted, everyone wants to be swinging a hammer à la Jimmy Carter on the carpentry crew. (But few want to do site cleanup.)

From the volunteers' point of view, their hours appear to be a lovely gift—and indeed they are. Volunteer help, though, is not really free labor for the organizations; they need to invest in management so they don't waste that time. It's certainly not too much to ask that they set up a system by which they manage to call you when they say they're going to. It's also not too much to ask that you do some investigating to find a place with its act together and then to get yourself in the door.

—Constance

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.

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