Volunteers Are The Worst

by Joan Garry

Why do so many nonprofit leaders have a serious love/hate relationship with volunteers? And is there anything they (and you) can do to make it work?

Imagine you are a pretty senior person in a corporate job. Someone tells you there are twenty people who are dying to volunteer for your department.

Volunteer, not intern – These folks get paid nothing in exchange for the experience and knowledge that they are helping you in getting your big job done.

And they are (I repeat!) free labor. They will do anything you ask them. Your department gets more work done and, as a result, is more profitable. And since your own year-end bonus relies on your productivity, the more you deliver, the more you make.

Sounds kinda awesome right? I’m thinking you’d sign right up.

So then why do so many nonprofit leaders have a serious love/hate relationship with volunteers? And is there anything they (and you) can do to make it actually work?

Why yes. Yes there is…

First, a recent reader, without meaning to, brought to light how valuable volunteers can really be:

“I’m the program director and run 9 different committees by myself with one support person that splits her time between me and the ED. Yet we have 4 staff members dedicated to two fundraisers. More money = more help.”

Perhaps more money equals more help. But guess what? More volunteers equals more help too! How about finding a first rate volunteer to work 15 hours a week to help with administrative support for this ridiculous amount of work?


So with all the potential upside, what’s the issue anyway? I mean seriously, who turns her back on free labor? Why don’t we all turn over every stone to try to find volunteers? Here are the top three excuses reasons I hear from nonprofit leaders.

  1. Volunteers are too much work. I have to figure out what the heck they can do that is finite, requires little supervision and keeps them occupied for long stretches of time. I am already way too busy to take on additional responsibility.
  2. Volunteers are just not reliable. I just can’t count on ‘em. I don’t pay them so who knows if they’ll even show up when I need them. I can’t take that chance.
  3. My work needs to be perfect. I can’t afford to let any balls drop – there’s too much at stake. I can’t give work to someone who doesn’t have the same amount of skin in the game as I do.


But they’re not. Here’s why.

Yes there’s a lot at stake if something gets messed up. But there’s even more at stake if you don’t get done what needs to be done. You can’t do everything yourself and have the reach and impact you need. It’s nearly impossible. If you never delegate, you’ll drown (and burn out.) And most nonprofits simply don’t have enough staff.

All three of the reasons come down to managing risk. You just need to find the right person who is committed to your mission. You need to give them specific tasks and you need to hold them accountable.

If you can’t do that, maybe the problem isn’t with the volunteers. Maybe it’s with you.


Don’t get defensive now. Of course there are great volunteers and terrible ones. A great volunteer is the same kind of person who makes a great staffer. She’s committed, understands her responsibilities (and has been sufficiently trained,) and she’s held accountable.

But there’s another critical ingredient. A great supervisor with a dose of creativity.

In other words, you.

Here’s what I mean about creativity. Think about the work you do every day. Think about the small tasks that, in aggregate, suck up your time. I’m positive you can come up with a variety of tasks for a willing and enthusiastic volunteer for at least an hour or two each day. If you plan far enough ahead, maybe even a couple days each week.

Filing. Backing up your computer. Pouring ketchup into cups for the lunch service at the soup kitchen.

It’s just not that hard to be creative about volunteers for annual galas and big dinner parties. In fact, you simply can’t execute these without dedicated volunteers. Start to think about your day-to-day job the same way.

So that’s the “creative” part. How about the “great supervisor” part?


1) Answer the phone

This one is a serious pet peeve. More than once I’ve told somebody I’m a nonprofit consultant and mention a client. The response: “Oh yeah, I tried to volunteer for them once but no one ever got back to me.”

SERIOUSLY? Just stop it! As an organization, make a decision. Either commit to working with volunteers or don’t. But if you do, pick up the phone.

2) Take interviews seriously

Just because the price is right doesn’t mean that either (a) the skill set is right or (b) the volunteer wants the gig for the right reason. Treat volunteer interviews just like you would for a full-time staffer.

3) Invest

People who drive meaning and significance from their work are more than three times as likely to stay engaged and stay put.

If you take time to share successes or a story that amplifies the need for your work, the specific task becomes unimportant. You’ll wind up with a volunteer who cares about the quality of the work as much as you do and will stay with you a long time. Don’t take your volunteers for granted. Let them know they’re appreciated and doing meaningful work.


Do my readers a favor. Head to the comments section below and share a great story about how a rockstar volunteer made your job a bit easier, came up with a great idea, or just provided strong moral support on a particularly tough day.

Let’s hear your stories. Inspire us.

And if you volunteer, thank you! And please share your experiences as well.

15 thoughts on “Volunteers Are The Worst”

  1. I’ve run non-profits on and off for nearly 20 years, all of which were community-based and heavily impacted by volunteers. I’ve had some amazing ones and some real klunkers. One of the most important things that I do to stay centered on how fabulous volunteers are and what it takes to be a volunteer – is that I volunteer myself for another organization. Whether it be as a board member, or a worker bee – I’ve always participated with another organization while working 60-70-more hours running a non-profit. My volunteers have full lives too like I do, so by giving some of my time keeps me centered as to the incredible dedication and commitment it takes to volunteer.

  2. My organization, The Foundation for Hope, is entering its 3rd year of existence
    as a 100% volunteer organization. Everyone is a volunteer and no one collects a
    paycheck. While the sun is setting on the efficacy of that model, I never want
    to forget these days. I think it is also important for all of us to remember
    that most (if not all) nonprofits where started by volunteers, build from
    volunteers, and likely would not be where they are today without volunteers.
    Thanks for a great post Joan, and a reminder of the value of the generous.

  3. Jesse – You are so right. The days of all volunteer orbs, the days of nonprofit execs asking for in kind services is starting to feel a bit like yesterday. Hoping that my comments and others will remind folks that it’s not solely money that drives the good work of a nonprofit. It’s the people. And that includes the unpaid ones.

  4. Craig. Hats off to you. BEING a volunteer is THE SINGLE BEST WAY to creating the best relationship possible with a volunteer. There may be readers who can’t imagine having the time but the volunteers make time for YOU, don’t they??? 🙂

  5. This may be an entirely different topic….but what happens if you have burnt out your volunteers? Our company has been so reduced that our board and ED think that volunteers can pick up the slack but we are finding it hard to get the volunteers because we have leaned on them so heavily.

  6. Bonnie. Have a small event to appreciate your volunteers. Nothing fancy. Make sure you have board participation so the volunteers see it as special. ED and Board member should both speak and really honor them. Is there one longstanding volunteer that stands out? Can you give her/him a Volunteer of the Year award? Then say there is two parts to the meeting – appreciating them and acknowledging their fatigue. Facilitate a brainstorm in which they can be part of the solution. The folks who are in the trenches are typically the folks with the best idea. What do you think?

  7. I served as a volunteer mentor from 2008-2010 with Minds Matter/NYC — an organization with only 1 paid staff person (the ED). The volunteer to paid staff ratio was approximately 275 to 1. Using conservative figures, the value of that volunteered time was nearly $2,000,000!
    All of Minds Matter’s volunteers are college graduates at varying stages of their careers looking to make a difference in their community by directly impacting a high school student’s chance at a college education.
    I am still in contact with my protégé, who just recently relocated to Chicago from NYC to attend Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and pursue her dream of becoming a pharmacist! I am so proud of her and look forward to maintaining our relationship for many years to come.

  8. I couldn’t agree with you more on this one Joan. All people who work for organizations or volunteers want to know that they are appreciated and here is the bigger picture..that THEY ADD VALUE to the team. I’m a firm believer that good ideas don’t have a hierarchy in corporations. Give recognition where it’s deserved.

  9. I’m new to nonprofits and volunteers. Besides sharing stories about their successes, do you offer them things such as gift cards for a job well done? I want to make sure my volunteers know how much we appreciate their time and great efforts.

  10. Check out VolunteerHub’s blog…
    Volunteer recognition goes way beyond just thanking volunteers. Rather, it should be an ongoing initiative with the purpose of engaging volunteers and making them feel like a valued part of the team.
    In this guide, we highlight some convincing reasons why your nonprofit should put improving volunteer recognition at the top of its to-do list. Also, we dive deeper into a topic that’s often a gray area for nonprofits: volunteer gifts. http://www.volunteerhub.com/blog/gifts-for-volunteers/

  11. Having just completed a five-week volunteer stint with an archaeological field school that left me heartbroken and humiliated by the director and his staff in front of 17 students, your words ring so true. After volunteering over 25 hours per week for this particular non-profit for three years (and over 200 hours in just this past month,) they have now lost a volunteer who was committed, engaged and passionate about the mission; who always completed tasks on schedule with very little complaint and always eager to do more. Their attitude is to pat themselves on the back for a job well done, but it is not necessary to acknowledge the volunteer since they obviously do not have the higher education or paid status to deserve such respect. Please keep hammering away this point, Joan – volunteers who commit are important and deserve respect for a job well done. This volunteer is now lost, but hopefully those non-profits who look “down” on their volunteers will take a second look at this issue and realize they are a valuable resource that can easily be lost.

  12. I run a small nonprofit law firm. We get, on average, 12 volunteer applications each week. But when we explain that people without legal skills cannot work on cases, we never hear from them again. Despite saying they will “do anything to help,” that just doesn’t hold true. We have student interns who do the filing, and prep work for hearings. We need volunteers to help with social media, legislative directives, web videos and photographers but do not get assistance in those areas. Any thoughts on how to engage ‘normal’ people in a skilled office setting would be appreciated!

  13. Our non-profit bought a 77-acre defunct golf course that hosts 5 social enterprises to provide the unlimited work and revenue streams for our job training program for people in need. With a mere 7 staff members, the approximately 25,000 hours a year of volunteer engagement is critical to our mission. Our volunteers are engaged in every aspect of what we do. Some have been with us since the beginning of our 5-year tenure and some log 50+ hours/week. We wouldn’t exist without them. It’s takes a community! http://www.riverviewgardens.org

  14. I have been the Director of Volunteer at a Medical Center for 18 years. A day with out volunteers would mean a patient would have to find there way through the maze of our campus. A baby in the intensive care nursery would lay in the isolate without someone to rock and cuddle them. The 81 year old grandmother who came into the Emergency room would be alone while waiting for her test results. Children who are hospitalized would not have the distraction of someone to play with. A Prayer shawl would not bring comfort to the newly diagnosed cancer patients. Family Centers would just be a waiting room with no one to answer questions or visit with a anxious loved one. Future Doctors, Nurses and others pursuing a health care career would not have the opportunity to have hands on experience before they graduate from college. The list goes on and on. No amount of money can buy the positive patient experience that volunteers do at our Medical Center.

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