You Can Count on Me!

Volunteers are the backbone of nonprofit organizations and the first step toward growth in program capacity. If they are so important, why are volunteers often unaware of their position duties and responsibilities, what the client is depending on them to accomplish, or how they are making an impact?

Most organizations would never hire a new staff person without exploring their skills, providing them with a detailed job description, or evaluating their performance. Volunteers deserve nothing less. Yet many volunteers are thrown into an opportunity without this information leading to disappointment and frustration for staff, volunteers, and most importantly clients.

To communicate this essential information, leadership should develop and provide the volunteer with a volunteer commitment form before they begin a new position. The one to two page document outlines position expectations in a nonconfrontational manner, including the time commitment, the skills required, and what they are responsible for. With that information in mind, the volunteer can communicate whether they have the capacity to fill the position. 

Although the volunteer commitment form is similar to a job description, the tone is distinct. Many organizations creatively weave the mission and impact into the form, using it as an opportunity to remind and educate the volunteer before they begin serving clients. The form is also another opportunity to thank the volunteer for their service. At the end of the form, the volunteer and organization leaders sign their name.

For board members in particular, the first part of the form should outline their responsibility to financially support the organization.  It should include the specific format of their gift as well as timing: including tickets for events, activities during end of year appeal, and other responsibilities to raise funds for the organization.  Once this is completed, staff and fellow leaders can remind board members of their commitment rather than ask.

Leaders should revisit their commitment on an annual basis. Does the form accurately describe the duties of the position? Is the volunteer fulfilling it? Are they interested in a different position or expanding their commitment? Ask them for help reporting the organization’s work by identifying clients that have compelling stories. Finally, provide the volunteer with an evaluation form that they can fill out anonymously.

Some leaders will focus on the legality of the form. Although volunteer commitment forms will probably not be useful in court, many volunteers will feel emotionally bound. Once they sign their name, they will treat their duties differently.

Organizations that have not used these in the past, often wonder how to start. Creating volunteer commitment forms can signal a new level of accountability and impact. Perhaps board members keep saying they are going to give but do not or a volunteer is undependable. By providing these forms, leaders can take responsibility for not clearly outlining duties and ask volunteers if they are willing to do what the position requires.

Volunteers are organization ambassadors and are responsible for advocating for client’s and community needs. Many organizations are scared of advocacy and if it will impact their legal status as nonprofit organizations, we will begin to discuss the role of advocacy in the next post.

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