Recently, I gave a series of video interviews for a graduate leadership management course at Azusa Pacific University. If I could offer one take-away, it’s this: volunteerism forms the essential cornerstone of a working civil society. Nonprofits, the most organized form of American civil society, embed volunteerism in their basic legal and organizational framework. From capable governance by nonprofit boards flows the responsible stewardship critical to good, strong civic ventures of all kinds. Nonprofits would not be half as effective absent generous board members giving of their time and brains to act as stewards of compelling missions that guide effective community organizations.
Further, many small organizations simply couldn't offer quality programming unaided by volunteers. Think of some of America’s venerable institutions – Habitat for Humanity and Girl Scouts, for example – alongside cutting-edge activist groups advancing human rights, social justice and environmental protection. Larger organizations risk overreaching and losing their way without strong volunteer leaders. Intentional management and enrichment of this precious resource distinguishes great organizations from the run-of-the-mill.
Intentional management begins with understanding what draws people to a nonprofit’s front door in the first place: a basic compassion for others. Training volunteers so they understand their roles in the larger organization and community will keep them coming back.
Boards also need to understand the realities of the greater – and constantly changing – social, political and economic context in which an organization operates. Ordinary volunteers may have less interest in these complexities, but anyone voluntarily governing an organization must have more than a passing acquaintance with the surrounding community conditions that affect a nonprofit’s work. Strategic insight and quick responsiveness at the governance level of any group can make the difference between sweet success and sour surprise. Nonprofit leaders who build in time for volunteers to understand both the surrounding community and the internal capacities of the organization build real allies for their work.
Finally, volunteers keep volunteering when they believe their hard work makes a difference in the lives of others. Few volunteers will stand up and demand recognition, so it’s incumbent on leaders to pour forth appreciation, praise and accolades. Periodically celebrating the time and talent volunteers contribute will assure a lasting relationship that rewards both the volunteer and the people every organization seeks to lift up.