Too many volunteers, not enough positions

The nonprofit community rarely has too much of anything.  We live in an economy of scarcity, where you buy a roll of toilet paper instead of a carton because you don’t have carton-sized cash on hand; where requests for raises are met with an incredulous “You didn’t go into the nonprofit world to get rich;” and where no matter how many fee-for-service contracts you secure, you never have quite enough money to cover the cost of services.   And when we do have too much of something, it’s not good news: unlike for-profit businesses, an increase in the number of a nonprofit’s “customers” usually means an increase in the amount of money it loses.

But now LinkedIn announces that a huge number of its members have chosen to incorporate volunteer work for nonprofits—or at least the willingness to do it—as part of their public identity.  In fact, says the social-media company,

10 million professionals who have added the Volunteer Experience and Causes section to their LinkedIn profiles – sharing the incredible work they’ve done and highlighting the causes and organizations they care most about. . . .4.5 million of these professionals are in the U.S. where there are approximately 1.5 million nonprofits – meaning there are 3 professionals who want to help to every single nonprofit.  

In addition, more than 4 million members have gone a step further in making a meaningful difference by signaling that they are interested in skilled volunteer work or joining a nonprofit board. . . .

The truth is that there’s no shortage of talented people in this world willing to help. The biggest challenge is bridging the gap between the number of professionals who want to help and the discoverable skilled volunteer opportunities  available to them.

The press release goes on, predictably, to laud various efforts LinkedIn has made to connect nonprofits and volunteers, alongside those offered by the Taproot Foundation, Volunteer Match and other organizations.

But here’s the problem: it’s not that opportunities for skilled volunteering are hidden; it’s that they don’t exist.

The key word here is “skilled.”  People who want to use their skills—in law or accounting or media or marketing or graphic design or even nonprofit management itself—often find that they’re greeted by nonprofits as if they were skunks arriving at a garden party.  Few agencies are ready with activities which match their skills, and even fewer are prepared to provide the support skilled volunteers require.  Smart people find themselves first superfluous, then lonely, then bored and finally utterly disillusioned and out the door.

What is to be done?  Nonprofits need to convene their staffs and have a frank conversation about the role of volunteers in the organization.  Staff members need to be reassured that they’re not going to be replaced by free labor.  (They’re not, are they?)  They need to be coached into developing lists of non-menial tasks useful to the agency for which they’re too busy—because most nonprofits don’t have enough time, either, to update that employee handbook or research that new database manager or reach out to a whole new audience with a targeted speakers’ bureau.  And some person at the nonprofit needs to be the volunteer coordinator—and not the most junior person, either.

Volunteers give more money than non-volunteers; turning them off is like standing in a cold shower tearing up $20 bills.  (Oh, no, that’s offshore sailing.  The Nonprofiteer gets confused.)  But pretending they’re a free resource is equally foolish: they’re a resource like most others in which you must invest to get a return.  Invest time in planning for them and time in supervising them and time in recognizing them—and recognize that a time investment of that size will oblige you to invest money as well.  It will be worth it.

Key thing to remember: high-skills volunteers want the big MAC:

  • Meaningful work
  • Autonomy—the opportunity to decide how best to approach an issue, albeit in consultation with staff
  • Collegiality—the opportunity to become part of a team and make a difference in the company of other people

Often the Nonprofiteer is asked, urgently, where to go to recruit volunteers—but that’s the wrong question, or at least not the first question.  If you build a volunteer program with meaningful work, autonomy and collegiality, they will come.

So build: volunteers are too great an asset for us to continue wasting them.



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    The Nonprofiteer is Kelly Kleiman, principal of NFP Consulting, which provides Board development, strategic planning and fund-raising services to charities and philanthropies. Through her consulting practice and in her guise as The Nonprofiteer, Kelly has spent the past 25-plus years helping small and mid-sized nonprofits organize themselves better and raise more money. These days she focuses especially on helping them use high-skill volunteers. Kelly is also a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; in the alternative press; on websites including the Huffington Post; and on the radio, including the BBC and WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. She and her fellow "Dueling Critic" Jonathan Abarbanel present a weekly podcast of their reviews of Chicago theater at Earlier in her career she was dean of admissions of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and Executive Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and practiced real estate and zoning law with the firm of Rudnick & Wolfe. Kelly holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago. She was a founding Board member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits and also served for 5 years on the Board of the Association for Women Journalists–Chicago. She can be reached ("Dear Nonprofiteer . . .") at

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