Recognizing the Magic of Nonprofit Volunteers and Those Who Lead Them

Recognizing the Magic of Nonprofit Volunteers and Those Who Lead Them

Guest post by Karmit J. Bulman, Esq. This post originally appeared on NonProfitPRO.

Do you think about how essential nonprofit volunteers are to achieving your organization’s mission? Do you truly understand volunteerism and how critical it is to the success of your program? Do you understand what your organization’s volunteer engagement staff do? What skills they bring to the table?

To better understand these issues, the Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration (MAVA) embarked upon an important research study in June 2017. We learned that the lack of true understanding about the essential nature of volunteers and those who lead them undermines the effectiveness of nonprofits. We learned that there are affirmative steps that can be taken to address the issues. For a copy of the full report, click here.

Volunteers Are Important

MAVA’s study showed that the majority of nonprofit staff feel that volunteers are a “nice-to-have,” not a “must-have,” and that finding them simply requires a staff person with a friendly personality who can draw them in and keep them happy. The reality is that volunteers are the secret sauce in nonprofit success. Along with paid staff, they are a nonprofit’s greatest asset. As nonprofit revenues decline and as underserved population’s needs grow, volunteers are needed now more than ever.

Volunteers have high-level skills that may be the key to maximum mission capacity. However, volunteers need the same supports and infrastructure paid staff need. Volunteer skill sets need to be vetted and they need careful job placement, onboarding, supervision and recognition. They are not a magical free resource.

Volunteer Engagement Professionals                  

The MAVA study revealed that volunteer engagement professionals (VEPs) are seen as entry-level folk belonging to a profession without a body of knowledge and certification. The VEP position is seen as a tactical, not a strategic position with a narrow scope of responsibility.

The MAVA study also revealed that some feel the VEP pay discrepancy might stem from the connection of VEPs with volunteers, who are seen as free or not dependable and easier to manage. Compounding the problem further, the study found that VEP positions are more likely to be eliminated first during times of financial difficulty. Finally, the study demonstrated that VEPs are typically not placed on the organization’s executive leadership or strategic planning team and volunteerism is excluded from the organizational strategic plan.

CEOs who addressed the unique challenges faced by VEPs in this study reflected that VEPs are in fact a second-class citizen in the workplace. Because it is so easy to replace unsatisfied VEPs, the CEOs seemed to accept the inevitability that VEPs will have challenges and will not last long in the organization. The unwillingness to make the job full-time or combining the position with other duties exemplifies the misunderstanding about the depth of high level duties required of a VEP. Since many CEOs see the job as clerical, they justify their decision to make the job part time or combine it with another position.

How Nonprofits Can Highlight the Nature of Volunteerism, Importance of the Volunteer Engagement Professional

When asked this question, nonprofit CEOs had a number of recommendations that ranged from articulating the value of volunteers, the value of the VEP position to how to structure the position. Most of the CEOs understood that it was essential to visibly show support for the value of volunteers and the volunteer program in contributing to the organization’s mission. Supporting information should be provided to the board, staff and the community with the aim of creating a culture that values volunteers.

CEOs said it is important to show support of volunteers through actions, including talking with volunteers to learn directly from them about their experience, being seen with volunteers and recognizing volunteers personally and publicly.

Nonprofit CEOs advised others to:

  • Restructure your organization to put volunteerism and the staff who lead volunteers in a more visible role.
  • Make the position essential by articulating the connection between volunteers and development and the strategic role of volunteers with programs and outreach.
  • Have the VEP on the executive team and integral to all teams that involve volunteers.
  • Position the VEP as a subject matter expert. Look at how the position is titled. Identify them proudly as a chief volunteerism officer.
  • Pay VEPs a fair wage for a high-level strategic staff role.
  • Consider changes to how people talk about volunteerism. For example, using “time donors” rather than “volunteers” and eliminating the term “volunteer program” because volunteers are a critical resource like paid staff (there is no paid staff program).
  • Involve volunteers at higher levels and throughout the organization.
  • Help all staff to understand what skills are necessary to have an effective volunteer workforce.
  • Make sure to use volunteers at a higher level; this leverages talent to advance programs.

For trainings and keynote presentations regarding this research study, please contact


About the author:
Karmit J. Bulman, Esq., is the executive director of Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration.