Friday, April 13, 2012

Voluntary Expectations

Non-profits, NGOs and Charities are all experiencing a massive deficiency during this recession. While the HR folks and the managers of operations and/or development folks all tried their best, they really didn't understand the financial requirements for riding out a recession like 2007. So they are suffering an enormous 'skills shortage' and are still unsuccessful in recovering and reactivating volunteers. I think many non-profit agencies fell into the old school economic philosophy assuming that when folks are out of work, they volunteer.
Alas, unlike the past couple, this recession really is an anomaly and in the current financial climate, not only is the supply of wealthy donors going down substantially, but volunteering is just not a tenable option for many that would and have done so in the past.  Retirees that had their IRAs tank and students who are now graduating with their average student loan debt burden topping $25000 are all required to pay off debts and (by necessity) require employment. So the two key volunteer demographic pools are now looking for work or delaying retirement and staying at whatever job they can get longer and are simply no longer financially able to volunteer. I have friends who were in finance, PR, social media, academia and management who are now working up to 3 online jobs or minimum wage work full and part-time as contractors all over the place (which makes it unviable for even the most civic minded or altruistic, to actively volunteer.
For the few that are determined enough to still take the plunge and try to volunteer while working and or job-hunting, it is critical that they are welcomed, appreciated, and not regarded as a potential threat to a paid employee for any non-profit or NGO. If you are middle management and paranoid of the rising entry-level employees, you will generally bring about your own phobia. Many do this by stifling volunteer and employee initiative and enthusiasm. This often occurs because many fear it will highlight their own deficiencies. That never works in the long run for middle management especially at non-profits.  The best way to preserve talent is to mentor and appreciate it, rather than simply squeezing the maximum amount possible out of everyone while assuming that as an organization, the hungry professionals out there will replace the current ones immediately the instant you have completely burned out the current paid employees while undermining the current volunteers.
Non-profits should not confuse themselves with corporations or private sector companies. While the more profitable corporations know that the best way to retain talent is to treat them well and they suffer far less turnover and ride economic waves better; a corporate manager can get away with treating employees shoddily and many middle managers are allowed to treat employees like cattle and can lay them off at the drop of a hat. They know however that they are quite capable of experiencing the same fate themselves. Volunteers are a volatile commodity that if unappreciated can (with clear conscience and no hesitation) walk out the door and go to another non-profit that day. When volunteers are treated badly, it definitely gets around. With the competition for the few able to volunteer in the current economy, it can severely damage future choices by potential volunteers. The ultimate reality is that many former volunteers still enjoy giving back to the community and helping others. They want to improve the lives of people in need. However, most former volunteers were not looking to be undermined or abused by an organization.  Many already experience enough ill-treatment where they are required to work in order to put food on the table, and (fortunately), very few feel the masochistic psychotic need to experience additional exploitation in order to volunteer.

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