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Valuing Volunteers: Three Questions to Ask

By Hyphen Parent

Volunteers are invaluable for churches, synagogues, and non-profit groups.  These programs can’t run without help and support from donors and volunteers. How do we treat those who support our organizations?  Here are a few simple questions every group could ask themselves to ensure volunteers are being treated fairly.

Is this task appropriate for a volunteer or should we be paying someone to do this? 

Is this a large project that requires specific proficiency? Does that work require specialized expertise and skill? Are we deluding ourselves into thinking this is appropriate for a volunteer?  Organizations often rely on volunteers, but is a volunteer really appropriate for the job at hand?

Increasingly, churches and synagogues are hiring Sunday school/Hebrew school teachers rather than relying on volunteers. Some groups are hiring social media and marketing representatives. Non-profits are hiring professional photographers rather than culling photos from volunteers and hoping for the best.  These are complicated tasks that require skills that are above and beyond the average work. Hiring someone provides the organization with an added layer of oversight and it provides fair pay for often-complicated work.

Once, I was on a board where we voted on continuing our education director’s contract. One board member raised his hand and asked, “Shouldn’t this be a volunteer position? Why are we even paying for this? Someone who supports our mission should do this work for free.”  It was an incredibly time-consuming job that required an advanced degree. No matter how much one supported our mission, no one should be expected to do that much work for free.

Our organizations may be able to find people with the skills necessary from within our pool of usual volunteers. However, just because they have done volunteer work in the past doesn’t mean every job should be expected for free. If the job requires someone with specific skills, we need to consider compensating them for the use of those skills.

Would we treat this volunteer this way if we were paying them for their time?

Provide volunteers with all the information they need. Give specific times and locations and ensure they’re accurate. Value your volunteers enough to ensure you are prepared for them. Do any prep work necessary.  Volunteers want to help. They want to use their time to support you or your program.  If they value your organization enough to want to use their skills to help, make sure their time and expertise are not wasted.

 If you hired someone, would you pay for their parking? Would you provide a meal or at least a scheduled lunch break? Would you require them to buy a ticket to be at the event where they’re volunteering?  Are you doing these things for your volunteers? If not, why not and what message are you sending? 

Engage with volunteers. Introduce them to others. There’s no need to hide them in the shadows. Even in professional situations, while you may not be able to chat, you can be friendly. Members and congregants are important and so too are volunteers. Don’t leave them stranded while you focus exclusively on potential new members or high donors.  At a meeting or while brainstorming, if someone with particular skills offers ideas, listen to them. Their suggestions likely come from a place of experience.  We don’t need to green light every one of their ideas, but give them professional consideration.

If you wouldn’t show up two hours late for a professional photographer, don’t do that to a volunteer one. If you wouldn’t expect a paid presenter to set up all their material without any help, don’t do that to volunteer speakers. Treat your volunteers with the professionalism and respect that you would show someone you hired to do the job. It’s difficult to continue to value an organization that shows it will not value a volunteer’s expertise and time.

How are you recognizing your volunteers?

When you walk the hallways of religious institutions and other organizations, you’ll find plaques commemorating the names of large donors. Often the precise dollar amounts given are even indicated on the plaque. So there’s no mistaking that Bob T. Smith is a very important donor who has greatly contributed to the organization. While Mr. Smith has put forth the unfathomable effort necessary to lift a pen and sign a check, an unnamed volunteer has, for the past twelve years, volunteered to spend hours cooking meals for all events.  Where is the plaque for that volunteer? If the cover of your newsletter prominently features pictures of your top tier donors at a fundraiser dressed to the nines, where are the pictures of volunteers setting up for the event?  You enthusiastically shake Mr. Smith’s hand and thank him profusely for all his help. How exactly are you greeting your volunteers when they arrive to help clean up?  

Recognition can be as simple as saying, “Thank you,” or as elaborate as an award ceremony and it must apply to all volunteers and donors. Lists of donors need to include the names of those who gave $18 as well as those who gave $18,000.  We should rush to shake the hands of high donors and volunteers with the same enthusiasm.  Our “thank yous” should be personalized and pertinent. Acknowledge the person and the specific ways they have supported the organization. Lately, it seems to be the trend to send a donation request poorly disguised as a “Thank you” note. “Thank you for the $10 you gave this year. Would you consider giving 100 this year?” Avoid that at all costs. One of the fastest ways to alienate people is to essentially say, “Thanks for doing this, but it’s not enough. Now give us more money.” This does not leave people feeling acknowledged, but it can create hard feelings. We may send our supporters running away feeling as though nothing they do is good enough. 

How an organization treats its volunteers before, during, and after their work can make all the difference in the world. Do we want to alienate our volunteers to the point where they resign from their positions and run far away? Do we want to treat them with respect and acknowledge their support? People volunteer because they believe strongly in a cause.  It takes very little effort from an organization to recognize the effort and encourage a long-term partnership with our volunteers. 

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