It's no secret that nonprofits depend on volunteers to raise funds, put on events and help operate critical infrastructure. They are the lifeblood of many nonprofits, large and small.
In today's digital age, it's not uncommon to recruit the help of volunteers for graphic design, web design, digital marketing and other technology needs. While that might be the most cost-effective avenue, it might not be the best overall solution in the long run.
When Tech Volunteerism Becomes Unsustainable
There are a few instances where relying on unpaid volunteers for technical tasks is problematic.
1. When volunteerism becomes unsustainable
We see this often with internal employees who take on additional responsibilities in lieu of a new hire. These "accidental office techies" know just enough to be dangerous. The problem here is it distracts from their day-to-day work (development, administration, training/coordination, etc.), preventing them also from fully committing to the side tasks. Avoid burnout!
2. When a monetary investment makes economic sense
This is most common when considering investing in a specific tool. For example, not having a fundraising database, wealth screening tool or other analytics software doesn't cost you anything, but can prevent you from realizing the full giving potential of your current and prospective donors. When using a "free" tool, you usually get what you pay for.
When considering a new hire, know that a staffer or independent consultant dedicated to fundraising or database management will pay dividends if they are successful. Just be sure your hiring and vetting practices are rigorous.
3. When expertise is outmatched
For organizations who want to become more active on social media, design a new brochure or launch a new website, it's common to look to an unpaid volunteer - maybe a family member or a friend of an employee - who has some knowledge but isn't yet a working professional (think: the ED's nephew who is studying web design or a friend who used to work in PR 10 years ago). They might be able to get something off the ground for you, but will you really be putting your best foot forward?
4. When quality suffers
Quality is at the core of all of the issues listed above. A bad campaign (of any kind) can be worse than no campaign in many cases. Poor quality among donor communications and marketing efforts will be noticed externally and may harm your reputation, while poor donor management can have far-reaching consequences internally.
Why Investing Is Best
Paying a professional is a two-way investment: the charity is invested in the expertise of the contractor or agency, and the provider is, in turn, invested in the success of the project.
While unpaid volunteers can certainly be in emotionally invested, they must ultimately be beholden to their paid clients, causing your project to go on the back burner. Seeking out specific grants and accredited pro-bono programs is an excellent way to avoid this issue, as opposed an informal / ad hoc arrangement with a freelancer.
If inadequate funds are your biggest issue, consider seeking an underwriting partner or sponsor for the volunteer's specific efforts. If it's a digital or print campaign, there may be an opportunity to recognize that donor within the content.
Tips For Vetting A Volunteer
If you absolutely cannot avoid working with an unpaid volunteer, it's important to take the selection process as seriously as you would with someone whom you paying. You will be investing time and energy, after all.
- Interview them as if they were a real hire
- Ask to see examples of past work, including key performance indicators and results
- Are they a cultural fit? Will they get along with other staffers at the organization?
- Ask them what they hope to get out of the relationship. Course credit? A reference? A portfolio piece?
Tips For Working With A Volunteer
As you're working with a volunteer, there are ways to maximize the relationship, keep morale high and ensure the success of the project or campaign:
- Focus on clarity - document your expectations, milestones, deliverables, etc. as early on in the engagement as possible so that there aren't any surprises later on.
- Treat them like a professional - even if they are a student. Don't be afraid to challenge them, but don't second-guess too much.
- Respect their time - in the same way you respect the time of a board or committee member. Make sure meetings have a written agenda and don't bog them down too much with phone calls or emails.
- Define success - measure as often as you can, and provide feedback on what is and isn't working.
- Compensate in other ways - be open to an in-kind donation receipt for their time. A handwritten note or a small gift of appreciation at the end of the project can go a long way! Treat them like a donor - they are one, after all.
As someone who has frequently volunteer tech, web and digital expertise to numerous nonprofits, I can tell you that it's critical to respect, trust and value your volunteers. There's nothing worse than a soured relationship, wasted time and unfinished assets, especially for nonprofits who are already strapped for time and money.
What about you? What experience do you have with volunteers, tech-focused or otherwise? Let us know in the comments below!