How Can NGOs Get the Most Skilled Volunteers?

For many startups organizations, particularly those in the non-profit sector, finding support from volunteers can be vital. Website developers working in their spare time… An accountant to help close the monthly books… an HR Director willing to help develop HR structures and hiring practices… are all (at times) necessary engagements that can have a profound impact on the success and stability of the organization.

… but these engagements can sometimes go wrong.

For one friend (who works within a large non-profit) who was recently seeking my advice, it was clear that she (and her organization) had a mixed history of success and was looking for some advice:

We’ve been very lucky so far with getting a lot of support from people who are willing to offer their expert advice and help. At times, though, I’ve found it difficult to manage deadlines when input is needed from people who are working probono. I’m wondering if you might have time to offer some advice about how to effectively manage working relationships with volunteers/pro bono consultants?

It is a question/ topic that I myself have not only juggled through experience with probono legal, accounting, and web teams, but also through my experience in building a Skilled Volunteer NGO capacity Team in Shanghai… and I answered her question with the following:

You are asking a tough question, and my immediate thoughts are the following:

1)      You have to find he right volunteers
2)      You have to have the right projects.

Seems simple, but honestly, when we (HandsOn and myself) have tried to work with groups (within NPI and otherwise) we find it hard to get a clear scope of need.  The NGOs are looking for what are really full time staff vs. volunteers who can execute set tasks, and it is nearly impossible to find such an arrangement.

The other issue (on the org side) is that many of these groups are too immature in their structure, and management style, to effectively manage (or leverage) the work of the NGOs.  They’ll take a warm body, and then either not know what to do with them (and accept anything as better than nothing) or put them to work on something that is far below the value of the volunteer.

Which then leads to the volunteer side.  At HandsOn we started a group for NGO capacity projects, and have two in process now (one NPI/ One not) and we are learning about the process as well.  We spent 4-6 months developing applications, forms, etc to help create a process, and we regularly check in with the volunteers to see how things are going.  It is really important to make sure that the volunteer is having a good experience, and feels like their efforts will result in something positive… otherwise, they will drop off.

Now,it goes without saying that before even considering any of the above, from the NGO perspective it is CRITICALLY important when looking at the potential for leveraging skilled volunteers that a LOT of planning and thought goes into the process. One of the worst things that can happen, and it happens often, is that skilled volunteers offers assistance.. which is accepted with little thought to what the volunteer would do, expectations of quality, etc.. and after four months the volunteer has disengaged without adding any value at all.

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