Some Volunteers Are Better Than Other Volunteers

Well the National Conference on Volunteering and Service seemed to have a lot of buzz. From Michele Obama’s keynote address to Jon Bon Jovi performing for the crowd, I may have found the answer to my question from the Council on Foundations conference asking where are all the rock stars?

The session I spoke at looked at how government, philanthropy and the private sector could collaborate and featured Sonal Shah of the White House Office of Social Innovation, who’s quite the rock star herself.

Sitting on the panel, I wasn’t able to take notes on what all the panelists had to say (who included myself, Shah, Michelle Nunn of Points of Light Institute and MacArthur Antigua of Public Allies). So I’ll focus on just my remarks below. But I do want to note that Shah pointed out that her office is made up of just four people and their job is to “leverage the available information.” Regular readers know that this is a concept close to my heart (see here and here), so it was nice to hear Shah address the issue.

I kicked off my remarks by quoting Tactical Philanthropy reader Greg Baldwin, the CEO of VolunteerMatch, who on Monday had responded to the series of questions I asked readers to address in relation to my panel.

Greg wrote:

I think to get underneath the questions you need a clear vision for how government and the nonprofit sector differ. What are their unique roles in society? With that you can begin a discussion of how can they work together.

I then suggested that all of the talk about the “blurring of the sectors” might be misguided. In fact, I think that when we talk about the sectors blurring, we are actually simply noticing that all of the sectors generate a blend of public and private benefit. But in order for the various sectors to work together, I think it is important that we pay more attention to understanding the distinction between sectors so that we can understand the roles and responsibilities of each group.

But at the same time I highlighted the fact that people are not sectors. People live simultaneously as private individuals and members of the public. Organizations in all sectors need to recognize that employees and stakeholders want to play a fulfilling role that speaks to their private needs and interest in public well being.

We also looked at the capacity needs if nonprofits are to effectively deploy the efforts of volunteers. In a remark that seemed to get traction on Twitter, I suggested that “capacity building” was overused as a phrase and that we need to focus on building robust organizations. During my comments I quoted Tactical Philanthropy reader Robert Egger of DC Central Kitchen, who responded to Monday’s post when he wrote:

There seems to be a big push for numbers (lots of volunteers) without two important discussions: “what do we want them to achieve (more painted shelter walls)?”, and “how will an already strapped nonprofit sector manage all these well intentioned volunteers?” Without capacity support, which seems to also be missing from this dialogue, it will be VERY difficult for any group to really focus all this energy.

This led to an almost heretical conversation for a volunteering conference when Ms. Shah said it was OK if not everyone who wanted to volunteer found a spot and I channeled Jacob Harold’s “Elephants in the Philanthropic Room” and suggested that “some volunteers are better than other volunteers.”

Overall it was great to see so much excitement and buzz at the conference.


  1. So what are the characteristics of “good” volunteers as opposed to “not so good” volunteers? Is there a threshold beyond which it’s a net negative to the organization? How can we set up processes to identify these situations and head them off before they happen, with potentially a huge influx of new volunteers coming in all at once?

  2. In a way, that’s a trick question. Part of the value of the volunteer is simply the act of volunteering. That’s all good. But from the perspective of the nonprofit trying to achieve social outcomes, some volunteers are better than others. The charateristics of a good volunteer depend on the needs.

    During the panel Sonal talked about volunteers who wanted to go to India and work with poor families. But the nonprofit in question really needed help with their website.

    At the end of the day, I do think you can generalize, just as we generalize about certain types of for-profit employees being better than others.

  3. Crossroads says:

    A battle we have spent a lot of time on, the core issue we have come to understand is that the problem is not the capacity of the volunteer, or how good they are. It is the capacity of the receiving organization, and how clearly they understand how and where to use volunteers.

    That, if an organization has not worked out the utility of a volunteer, developed clear guidelines and expectations for those volunteers, and cannot properly manage the skills/ passion/ time that a volunteer (skilled or unskilled), then it is not about good or bad volunteers.


  4. Your comment about wanting to go to India vs. manage the website resonates with me. The volunteers who are solid gold for an organization, in my experience, are the ones who are willing to do anything, rather than coming in with an agenda. Either that or ones with highly specialized skills (e.g., a legal background) who fill a niche for the org for free.

  5. Crossroads, we talked about that issue too when we discussed the need for robust organizations to effectively manage volunteers. This was Robert Eggers point. But that doesn’t mean that all volunteers are equal. It is a simple statement of the obvious that some people are better at some things than other people are. That’s true in baseball, math, finance and volunteering.

  6. MacArthur Antigua says:

    Sean, it was a pleasure meeting you, and I really appreciated your affirmation of how employees/stakeholders desire to create public benefit AND meet private needs/motivations. That’s what the young adults who are entering this work are striving for, and I’m hoping that they won’t get disillusioned with they witness how their organization/system isn’t structured to affirm that. I’m hopeful that the new talent in the sector will accelerate this, or else we’ll lose this notion.

    BTW, It took me a while to warm up, so thanks for helping us get to that “heretical place” in the conversation. Again, it was a pleasure meeting you, and keep up the great insights with your blog.

  7. I have to agree with Crossroads here. Of course it is a basic truth that some people are better than others at some things, but far too often organizations fail to even attempt to figure out what their volunteers may be good at.

    Ian mentioned that his best volunteers “are the ones who are willing to do anything, rather than coming in with an agenda.” Clearly it would be great if every volunteer was not only good at everything, but willing to do absolutely anything asked (and willing to do it all for free). Who would need full time staff?

    But the fact is that volunteers may be good at something useful for my organization, but how would I know this if I never bother to find out what they are good at? The model for many organizations is to simply take the latest volunteer to walk in the door and plug them into the most immediate gap. This is a terrible model for leveraging human capital because it assumes the volunteers are simply interchangeable commodities. Would you hire a paid employee and never bother to figure out what their skills and experience were? While commercial businesses are frequently criticized for treating employees like cogs in a machine, the way NPOs treat their volunteers is even worse since few seem to view the average volunteer as anything more than another warm body.

    It is not hard to do a better job at leveraging volunteers. How about asking volunteers for resumes? Not as a screening device, but rather to figure out what skills they have might be useful. How having a formal interview with volunteers? Again, not so much to weed out “bad” volunteers, but to find out what they like to do.

    There are lots of things that can be done, and of course, every organization’s situation is unique. However the tactical aspects are generally not as important as orienting to the idea that getting the most of volunteers means treating them like individuals.

  8. I agree with you Muhammad. But I would suggest that the way nonprofits treat volunteers (as if they are faceless and identical) is a function of them believing they shouldn’t separate them based on skill. Ask for a resume? How offensive if you are suppose to appreciative that they want to help. But if you believe that some are better than others, then of course you’d ask for a resume.

    At the end of the day, is a cultural shift that needs to involve everyone. Clearly, your point that nonprofits need to manage volunteers better is correct.

  9. Right. Once you accept the idea that volunteers should be, at a minimum, matched to the needs of the organization according to their skills, it is inevitable that not everyone who shows up will be a net benefit to the organization. The basic theme is that organizations should be more discriminating with respect to volunteers than just trying to maximize their total volunteer “body count.” Re-reading the post I see that is precisely what you were driving at. But I an still not entirely clear whether the idea “some volunteers are better than others” is intended to drive organization toward somehow finding more “good” volunteers or to finding more of the good in the volunteers that they have.

    IMO, organization tend to spend too much time trying to find volunteers and far too little time figuring out what to do with them. A lot of my volunteer experience has been political volunteering. One thing I don’t really like is to talk on the phone, so phone canvassing is not really my cup of tea. However, I will stand outside to talk to people all day; I have no problem standing on corners and accosting people, knocking on doors, etc. Occasionally, I will show up for a volunteer effort and someone will try to shove me behind a phone. At the same time they will take some other poor schumck who would rather be inside on a phone and force him to stand around outside. The end result is that we both are unhappy and both end up doing a mediocre job. Now, it would be easy to decide that the problem is that we are just not “good” volunteers and the organization should be focused on recruiting more “good” volunteers instead of deadbeats like us. But the real issue is the assignment of volunteers in such an ad-hoc fashion that volunteers almost inevitably end up with jobs that are outside of their strengths.