Pick Two

pick two

One of my previous careers was benchwork joiner. That means that I have been trained to build custom furniture. During training, an instructor gave us a piece of information that has really stuck with me. He said “There are three attractive aspects to any job, but the customer can only pick two.” The three aspects are fast turnaround time, high-quality work and low price. Think about it. If you want a really high-quality product or service and you want it fast, you’ll have to pay a premium for it. Do you want a high-quality item for a low price? Your job just won’t be a priority. If you want something low-priced and quickly, you lose out on quality.

Something similar can be said for volunteer programs. One of the aspects is the same: low cost. The other two are a large team and high impact. If you want a lot of volunteers who all make a real impact toward your mission, you will have to invest both time and money into developing and supporting them. Do you want volunteers who make an impact, but can’t or don’t want to invest in them? Then you may find a few good ones, but not many. If you want a lot of volunteers but aren’t going to invest, the impact they’ll have in moving your mission forward will be low. So, which two does your organization pick? I think you can figure out which scenario I recommend!

Let’s look a bit closer at each of these aspects.

Low cost.

Social impact organizations, especially smaller ones, tend to have limited budgets and limited staff. Whether in time, emotional involvement or cold, hard cash building a large, impactful volunteer team takes investment. Building personal relationships. Supervising the team. Putting on training. And so on. Often, organizations feel that they have to ask a staff member, whose main role is something else, to also take charge of the volunteers. These people usually have little time or energy to spare to build relationships and create trust with the volunteers, so they fall back on building systems that save them time. The position of leader of volunteers is a leadership position! And in most organizations that I’ve seen, the leader of volunteers is in charge of more people than anyone else in the organization except the CEO or Executive Director themselves. And yet it’s often felt that it’s necessary to resort to having someone do it off the corner of their desk with an almost non-existent budget.

Large team.

I firmly believe in quality over quantity. That said, it is important to have enough volunteers to actually get things done. In a previous blog, “A Sea of Volunteers”, I talked about the impact an organization could have if they had an almost unlimited supply of volunteers. How many more clients could you help, or beaches could you clean? What new programs could you initiate if you had more volunteers to help? What issues that are falling through the cracks could you now tackle? While it is vital to have good volunteers, not just warm bodies, even superstar volunteers can only accomplish so much in a given period of time. Most organizations need more than just a handful of volunteers, especially if they want to make a real impact.

High impact.

This, of course, is the reason that our organizations exist – to make an impact in our communities or the world. Having volunteers, even lots of them, doesn’t necessarily lead to impact. Piling up volunteer hours is great, but if those hours are spent doing unimportant work, you won’t make much of a difference. To have impact, it’s important to have volunteers doing work that matters. That takes thinking strategically and having a program that runs smoothly with as little red tape as possible. Volunteers need to know what they’re supposed to be doing, how to do it, and why it matters. When volunteers are standing around wondering what to do, or doing “make-work” projects, you will gain hours but not impact.

Years ago, I volunteered at an art gallery. I applied, did the training then showed up for my first shift. The person I reported to looked at me blankly. She had no idea I was coming and had nothing for me to do. She gave me some make-work stuff. Fair enough; it’s the first shift, obviously there was a communications mix-up. Except that it happened on my second shift, too. When it happened on my third shift, I turned around and left. One very capable and experienced volunteer (if I do say so myself!). Eight hours. Zero impact.

Okay. So there are the three aspects of a volunteer program. Pick two.

As leaders of volunteers, I suspect that you would make the same choice that I do. Will your board or executive, though? And if their choice is different than yours, what will you do? This is where you need to learn to advocate. Find ways to demonstrate the value of investing in the volunteer program. The leaders of the organization want impact as much as you do. That’s not a hard sell. You need to show that having more volunteers will increase that impact, but only if those volunteers are invested in, with both time and money.

Help your organization pick the two aspects that will make a difference in the world. Good luck!

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