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Volunteers can be a non-profit's blessing or its curse -- depending on how one manages those vol

Virtually all non-profits rely, to some extent, on the time, energy and goodwill of interested volunteers. Managing those volunteers well can ensure that both the individuals and the organization benefit from the experience. Here's a great piece by Gracie Maliska and Margie Fleming Glennon on doing just that.

By Grace Maliska and Margie Fleming Glennon

Relying on skilled professionals as volunteers to help your nonprofit meet goals seems appealing, but many nonprofits encounter challenges when putting pro bono volunteers to work.

In the report Balancing Pro Bono Supply and Demand: Challenges and Solutions from the Nonprofit Point of View, consulting firm LBG Associates shares insights into the views of more than 1,000 nonprofits regarding volunteers who provide professional services for free. The study identifies the biggest challenges nonprofits face when working with pro bono volunteers, who are often provided by corporations, and shares solutions nonprofits have used to meet the challenges.

Nonprofits reported that it can be hard to find the right volunteers and difficult to get projects completed because of budget shortfalls, limited volunteer time, and inadequate communication about expectations by both the organizations and the volunteers, among other problems.

Most of the nonprofits indicated that working with pro bono volunteers was a last resort, because the challenges often outweigh the benefits. Yet 90 percent of respondents who used pro bono volunteers said they would use them again, and most reported favorable outcomes for their projects.

Nonprofits that are most likely to have a successful experience with skilled volunteers, according to the report, are those with a strong internal structure, clearly defined goals for projects, open lines of communication, a set timeline, dedicated staff for volunteer management, and defined budgets.

The survey respondents identified the top five trouble spots they encountered when working on projects with pro bono volunteers and shared solutions to these common challenges.

  1. Problem: Getting started with a pro bono volunteer project. Solutions: Draw upon advice from your board or other nonprofits as well as publicly available resources, such as volunteer databases. At least 70 percent of the nonprofits said they were not aware of such free tools and resources as Taproot, Common Impact, and Volunteer Canada.

  2. Problem: Finding professionals with the skills you need. Solutions: When seeking volunteers, treat the process the same as you would for a paid position: check references, conduct interviews, don’t be afraid to say “no” when a volunteer does not seem to be a good fit for your needs.

  3. Problem: Managing time. Solutions: The recommendations include assigning a staff member to be the point person for the project and creating a realistic timeline based on staff availability to oversee the work.

  4. Problem: Meeting deadlines and staying on track. Solutions: To stay on schedule, hold meetings regularly and do not cancel them. Ask volunteers to commit to a realistic number of hours per week. Develop a contingency plan in case of problems.

  5. Problem: Finding the means to implement the project. Often pro bono volunteers present a deliverable (e.g., a new database, a new organizational brand, or a fundraising strategy) but are not available to help implement it. Solutions: Fully understand the cost of implementing the proposed project before you begin. Develop a statement of work for the project and, if possible, include implementation of the final deliverable as part of the volunteer’s services. If working with a corporation, ask for a grant to cover the cost of implementing the final product. Raise funds while the project is under way; build excitement about the potential impact of the project.

The report has an appendix of online pro bono resources and other sources for guidance. It also outlines ways that the companies providing volunteers can help improve project workflows and outcomes. To learn more, visit LBG Associates website to download the report.

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