For charities, nothing beats a volunteer


February 15, 1993|By LESTER A. PICKER

With nonprofits stretching every penny to make ends meet, noncash resources have taken on a new allure.

In-kind donations of equipment, depreciated furniture and rent reductions each play a part in an organization's survival nowadays. Still, the biggest help to charitable agencies comes in the form of bodies -- good, old-fashioned volunteer help.

There's lots of talk in nonprofit professional groups these days concerning volunteers. The volunteer base has been shrinking over the past two decades, as women have returned to the work force full time.

Liability issues surrounding volunteers have increased, due to our litigious society. And the sheer pace of life today makes large blocks of time for volunteerism nearly impossible.

Most importantly, the very nature of volunteerism has changed in some remarkable ways. As I've written about before, the ideal stay-at-home-mother-volunteer giving abundant amounts of time each week to her favorite causes is gone. Instead, the new paradigm for volunteerism is time-limited and task-specific.

Successful nonprofit organizations structure entirely new volunteerism systems, encompassing everything from recruitment and training to evaluation and recognition. They create volunteer opportunities that fit the realities of life in the 1990s. They invite volunteers in for a defined length of time, to work on very specific tasks.

Is all this effort worth it? Some nonprofit executives complain that it very well may not be. But, those who are successful in changing their mind-set about volunteerism find that it pays off handsomely.

If nothing else, research studies show conclusively that volunteers contribute far more financially to an organization than the general public.

Changes to a volunteer program do not come easy. We all wish volunteerism operated the old-fashioned way. But that's plainly not about to happen. What, then, can an organization do to start on the road to volunteer nirvana?

The first step is to understand the nature of volunteers. What prompts people to volunteer? What do they most value about the experience? What can we reasonably expect from our volunteer base? In other words, market research must be the first task in restructuring or creating a volunteer program of the future.

Here is where a fabulous set of books from Washington-based Independent Sector comes in. Independent Sector is a nonprofit coalition of corporations, foundations and nonprofit organizations encouraging giving and volunteering.

Every two years they sponsor a major survey of volunteerism, conducted by The Gallup Organization. For 1992, Independent Sector supplemented its survey of adult volunteerism with a parallel study of teen-agers. Each book is a gold mine of information, revealing the preferences and trends that form the cornerstone of a good marketing plan.

For example, on the positive side, 27 percent of volunteers still put in at least five hours each week for charity. Fifteen percent of contributors still give 5 percent or more of their income to charity. Marketing-wise, we need to continue with efforts like the Strive for Five campaign to encourage more people to give and volunteer to this standard.

The survey also shows that people with youth experiences in giving and volunteering are more generous than most other Americans.

Obviously, then, we need to encourage youth to experience the satisfactions of volunteering if we have any hope of increasing volunteerism in future generations of adults.

The youth survey is equally informative -- and hopeful. Sixty-one percent of youths 12-17 years old volunteered an average of more than three hours a week, with 17 percent putting in more than five hours a week.

Those teens involved in volunteering said they believed that they learned to respect others, gained satisfaction from helping others and learned how to be helpful and kind.

Each book is chock full of tables, accompanied by very readable prose that explains major findings. The entire survey instruments are reproduced in their entirety. Additional chapters, such as those comparing adult and teen volunteering, offer the reader in-depth analysis of survey results.

I recommend these books for anyone involved in strategic or marketing planning with nonprofit organizations.

They are a prime example of Independent Sector's commitment to advancing philanthropy in this country.

Both books are available from Independent Sector ([202] 223-8100). The adult reference is $30, while the teen work is $20.

(Lester A Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md, 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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