Replace Current Volunteers or Redirect New Ones?

By Susan J. Ellis

In its January 26th edition, the Minneapolis StarTribune ran an article titled “As older Minnesota volunteers leave, who will replace them?” which was highlighted the next day by The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The newspaper story was quite well-written and even included quotations from the executive director of the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) – bravo to the thorough reporter for finding experts!

If you read the full article, I suspect you’ll agree with much of it, especially because it is neither written in a woe-is-me tone nor blames uncaring Millennials for not having the sacrifice gene that older generations had. In fact, the author realistically notes that yesterday’s volunteering is no longer viable in many situations, while today’s volunteering is legitimately held to different standards by those wishing to serve. And most importantly, the article strongly states that organizations must adapt creatively.

I was surprised, however, to read that a $200,000 grant awarded to Minnesota was going first to examine how to encourage more volunteering at food pantries. Let me quickly say that I totally understand that the cause of hunger and the immediate need to get food to hungry people remain critical issues. But I could see far better ways to spend grant  money than trying to find ways to attract younger volunteers to the traditional (and perhaps doomed) volunteer role of helping the pantry to sort and shelve donated food.

To engage needed volunteers in the future, we must ask better critical questions about what should come tomorrow.  The challenge for the food pantry is not “how do we replace our older volunteers?” but rather “how will we change everything we do to get things done?”  Ironically, this means examining how the organization uses its money as well as how it can benefit from new volunteers. 

A Different Perspective

Hot Topic Feb 2015

The food pantry situation can be used as an example of alternative strategic planning. 

I’d start by asking: Is the food pantry truly getting the help it needs right now from current volunteers?  Just because a corps of people comes in regularly does not mean they are getting the work done. Are current volunteers spending more time socializing than sorting food? Are some older volunteers becoming less productive at the physical labor needed?  

As a single day of service, almost any kind of group can be recruited to sort food once. But the more pertinent question is:  Is it realistic to expect that someone in their 20s will ever want to do this same volunteer work, week in and week out? Generational differences are real (not that every senior volunteers or that no twenty-something gives a lot of time to a cause).  In today’s volunteer world, people want to do things that make the most of their limited time. While it might be counterintuitive, the more we recruit by minimizing the effort of a volunteer role, the less attractive it becomes to those who want to make a real difference.

Ready for a radical idea?

Given the amount of effort it takes to recruit, train, supervise, and schedule dozens of volunteers for every pantry, I would consider this question:  Might we be smarter to hire some of the people needing the food to work full time for a decent wage to do this as a job and get it done efficiently? Then fewer and more skilled volunteers could work in much more flexible ways, devoting their time to other important things, such as soliciting large donations of produce from new sources, negotiating discount cards at local restaurants, starting an after-school healthy snack program, or lobbying legislators to extend and improve food stamps.

I can hear the objections already. But, Susan, we don’t have the money to hire food sorters. Well, maybe that is a fundraising goal for next year. Or maybe you can become a work placement site for people who are developmentally challenged or settling into a half-way house of some sort.  Or maybe you set up a self-help coop in which those who need the food also contribute their time to help everyone else. Remember that making no change means you are diverting paid staff into a lot of volunteer coordinating work that stops them from being as productive as you and they wish.

Employees or Volunteers?

“What can volunteers do for us?” is only one half of the equation. The other half is:  “Where should we put our money?”

Executives tend to think only in terms of employees as the doers of the organization’s primary work and volunteers as low-skilled assistants with some of the tasks. This is short-sighted.  In small organizations, especially, it’s more effective to reward a paid staff member for spending time coordinating skilled volunteers and others who can (if they are the right people) multiply the outputs many times more than what the single staffer can do alone.

Budget cutting often eliminates low-level jobs. Not only does this save the least amount of money in payroll, but it leaves remaining staff without needed support – forcing them to answer phones, do clerical things, etc. And it’s just those types of activities for which it is harder and harder to find volunteers. 

The reasoning I just presented about considering food pantry stocking as a paid job is important. Pay money for work that needs to be done at a specific time in a consistent way.

Please understand that I am not recommending that we start paying people just because it’s hard to recruit for some volunteer positions. I am simply asking organizations to be holistic in determining where to direct their financial and human resources, with the end result of gaining different (and possibly more) volunteers to attractive and important activities. And, if they have been expecting all sorts of people on staff to understand how to find and work with volunteers, maybe it will become obvious that one way to spend money is to hire a staff member expressly to coordinate volunteers!

What kinds of roles are smart to carve out for volunteers? Build on the unique capabilities volunteers offer, such as:

  • Skills and interests different from those of the organization’s employees so that volunteers expand the available talents rather than duplicate or simply assist paid staff
  • Having the luxury to focus as much time as necessary on a single client, long-term cause, or specific task (since employees generally have to juggle the demands of the whole workload)
  • Availability on days and in time periods when paid staff are not working, but client needs still exist
  • Being product-oriented rather than schedule-oriented

It’s probably also useful to note that just because a group of long-time volunteers love their work is not enough reason to keep replicating the same model forever. Those dependable senior food sorters would probably not be attracted to helping the pantry at home at midnight on a smartphone. Guess what age group might listen up to that recruitment pitch?

OK. Your turn. Philosophically and practically, when should we consider hiring staff for some tasks and redirecting volunteers to new roles?

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Don Rhodes, Employers' Advocate, Central Otago, New Zealand

Love your suggestion Susan that those using the community pantry do something for the pantry. It's the old story, certainly in my country, that if you keep on just giving it becomes an expectation. That is not helping.

Something else. I have heard of various organisations volunteering, eg a Company or sports club arrange rosters of their people to help in whatever volunteer operation they see as worthy of their efforts. Is this something you have seen in action, and if so, how successful?

Excellent site you run. I pass it on at every opportunity. Cheers. DonR.

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, USA

Thanks for the nice words, Don -- and the Kiwi perspective!  

Yes, "rosters" can work in situations with a specific membership pool and continuing, similar events.  People WILL come out for specific shifts if they like the activity and if they don't have to commit to the same shift every single week.

Submitted on
Jenna Jones, CVA, Volunteer Coordinator, Smithsonian Associates Program, Washington, DC, USA

Great article, Susan! Thanks for re-thinking the best way to get things done, and how Volunteer Leaders (Coordinators) need to be more responsive to the motivations and expectations of different generations of volunteers. I had to giggle at this phrase you used when discussing the article that sparked your post about how Millennials may not have "the sacrifice gene that older generations had." There's some truth to that I think, my experience has been that Millennial volunteers select opportunities that provide them with something of intrinsic value to them, such as a great thing to add to their resume (the job market is really tough, so volunteering helps make your resume look better than others), or a social outlet, or skill-building opportunities that they can then use elsewhere. My older volunteers tend to say things like "I volunteer because it feels good to help others and make a positive difference in someone's life." I know this is just anecdotal comments, but they ring true in the work I've done at several non profits.

And it is important to note that both generations make great volunteers - I am not saying one is better than the other - the key is to be mindful of what each generation wants and needs as volunteers, and be sure that these match the opportunities your organization can offer. Make it a win-win for all.

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadlephia, PA, USA

Yes, Jenna -- there are indeed generational traits. Different but all important. Just so long as we realize that it always comes down to individuals and devoted volunteers can be found of all ages. Thanks for your comments.

Submitted on
Carol Bloemer, RSVP Director, Volunteer Center of East Central WI, Appleton, WI, USA

Great topic! From food pantries to thrift shops this is a resounding concern for the volunteer managers in our area. I have studied Baby Boomer volunteer trends and attended training on the subject. Though I can see the shifting of the motivations expressed by volunteers and changing of expectations I caution volunteer managers in making big shifts in how they do their placements and recruitment.

Pew Research states that 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day until 2019. That is a lot of people! I cannot believe that they all want the same thing. They are going to be diverse as the general public. What I am noticing is volunteers wanting to be called each time they are needed. Then they can choose to respond or not to respond.

There are some great software programs that the volunteers can submit a need for a substitute for their shift and it goes to everyone who checked that they would accept those emails. Just this week the volunteer software program emailed me that a volunteer from a meals program had she broken her wrist and needed two meals covered. I am just old enough to think that that is the bee’s knees!

For our local volunteer awards program I am writing a letter of support for a nomination for a volunteer of the local homeless shelter who founded a new program. I do not know if she copied this idea but she brings pans, recipes and the grocery list to our church and hands them out. Two weeks later she picks up the frozen entrees that we have all made and puts them into cold storage until the shelter needs them. This saved the shelter $40,000 in one year.

To me this is social innovation. Retooling the need to find a volunteer group to be scheduled every evening to prepare a meal to finding a couple people to heat and serve a meal. Many of the people from church who made the frozen entrée would not have time to fill a shift at dinner time.

So my advice is to:
1. Be clear about your needs and expectations. If you need to have someone for a 4 hour shift each week, ask for it. There are still volunteers who will rise to the occasion.
2. Be creative and flexible. So that same 4 hour shift could be rotated with someone else who also can only volunteer every other week. Maybe a shift “Team” is needed. Then they work out their schedule within the team to cover the shifts. Also if volunteers know they have subs that they can call upon, they are more apt to sign up for a regular shift.
3. Look for tools that can help you design a program that caters to the needs of your volunteers.
4. Look for new ways as Susan stated to get the job done.
5. Slim line your volunteer application process. Filling out 4 pages of information to stock shelves is not necessary. Ask yourself what is the least amount of information about a person in order for them to help you. If it can be done on-line that is even better.

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, USA

Wonderful ideas, Carol.  Thanks for sharing them and making such practical points.

Submitted on
Mary Quirk, Executive Director, Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA), Minnesota, USA

This “Hot Topic” has stimulated good conversations in Minnesota. Not surprising, the contact that originated the StarTribune story was from a volunteer on a Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) Task Force of volunteers that developed recommendations on changes needed to tap the potential of volunteers around retirement. See their report at The Task Force wanted to draw attention to what needs to change, and this “Hot Topic” sure did that! Fortunately, the grant to Minnesota, mentioned in the article, will also bring resources for volunteer management best practice training for hunger relief and other organizations. Additionally, it will expand MAVA and HandsOn Twin Cities “Service Enterprise” initiative in Minnesota that includes a section on looking at how to best use human talent in an organization – both paid an unpaid staff. We will put to good use the important questions you raised. We are seeing some of the hunger relief organizations in Minnesota doing creative work with human talent, addressing the questions you raised. It would be great to hear from other parts of the country on how these questions are being addressed by hunger relief organizations. Thank you for pushing our thinking

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, USA

Thanks so much for the useful additional information, Mary!

Always glad to be a stimulator of good conversations.  :-)

Great article, Susan and indeed all organizations will need to re-think their workforce. I do think there should be a real effort for organizations to judge if it's a volunteer or paid position. For those that think 'we'll just get volunteers to do it' will be a short-sighted decision.

Yes, we have many baby boomers that are retiring and are making a big impact on how volunteer programs thrive, but they cannot count on that forever. In my own program, I have seen an increase on our volunteers who have retired from a high skilled job leave our program after a year or so of service to take another job. Usually, that job is something part time or short term, but where they can have control over their hours and the project itself. It will still be work, but working differently than they had before. (As someone who is thinking ahead, this model really appeals to me - I would love the opportunity!)

Many may be looking for a part time gig that allows for some extra income but with the flexibility of part time hours. Given their past skills they can be very effective in managing programs and thinking creatively how to develop new roles for volunteers that will meet the needs of the organization and the 'new' volunteer profile.

And you can't expect the low skilled - or lowest wage folks to manage a robust volunteer program well or for long. In my opinion, that position needs to be someone with as the same skills and talents as the upper management or Executive Director and should have equity in pay and stature in the organization!

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, USA

From your keyboard to the board's ears, Gretchen!

Submitted on
Chrissy, Mountain Home/ID, USA

I am a new paid Volunteer Coordinator at our local hospital. I have voluntarily managed volunteers for the past 11+ years in varous roles in a different organization. This article and all of the comments has given me much to think about and apply in this new position. Thank you

Submitted on
Susan J Ellis, Energize, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, USA

You're welcome and welcome to the field, Chrissy!