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Be Sure to Count All Volunteers

by Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

Are you keeping track of all the volunteer support your organization receives? Are you sure? In the course of a year, it is common for agencies to benefit from the donated services of a wide range of people, yet only those formally designated as "volunteers" are reflected in the reports of the volunteer program. This is a missed opportunity in a number of ways.

There may be people who come to your organization in a roundabout way, bypassing the procedures of the volunteer services office. There are many examples, including:

  • Graduate students doing professional internships. Often the contact is made by the university program directly to the relevant department head (social work, nursing, etc.). Because these students are just about fully trained and are called "interns," welcoming them is seen as a professional obligation or courtesy by the staff. In fact, it may seem insulting or irrelevant to treat them as volunteers.

  • Groups who help the organization collectively, perhaps for one visit a year such as caroling, garden clean-up, or running a holiday party. Here the contact may come through an activity or therapy office, or even directly through administration.

  • Clergy who visit under various types of chaplaincy programs. These visits frequently go beyond an occasional friendly chat. They may be regularly scheduled and the clergyperson may, in turn, recruit others from a congregation to provide additional personal services. This is most often viewed as service to the client, rather than as service to the organization.

  • Children of staff and board members. It is not uncommon for an agency to become surrogate child care, particularly for teenagers. "Helping out" after school or during long school holidays usually means coming in to the office with mom or dad and doing a variety of odd, generally menial, jobs. Even more frequent is bringing along one's family members (of any age) to help at a special event.

  • Advisors or consultants with special expertise who donate their professional services, generally directly to the board of directors or to the executive staff.

Most organizations want to demonstrate that intangible called "community support." If the services contributed by such "special category" volunteers are continually under-reported, you aren't providing a true picture of how many citizens prove through their actions that they care about your work. Funding sources, politicians, and other social leaders ought to be shown the full scope of your community engagement. Further, everyone who spends time, even briefly, in your organization becomes a potential ambassador for you. This is a chance to orient and educate ever-widening spheres of influence, as different people come and go. Why not adapt existing volunteer orientation programs to interns, groups, consultants, or anyone else needing to be brought up to speed on the mission, context, and services of your organization? In light of today's risk management paranoia, it is important to ask anyone who comes into contact with clients to complete some sort of application form or at least a sign-in sheet, so that you have a record of who is in your building. There may even be a need for background checks. Given the recent publicity about clergy-related child abuse, even religious leaders ought to be cleared and approved.

All contributed work deserves thanks. Whether for one-time service or hundreds of hours, members of the community ought to be properly acknowledged by the organization in a formal way. It doesnít matter whether you set more places at the annual volunteer luncheon (though that might be nice), but anyone who has helped throughout the year ought to feel appreciated. In turn, they will have positive feelings about your organization and pass along that attitude to others they know.Here's a final note about all those relatives of staff and volunteers who are dragged into helping at a special event. Slap a button on them that says "official volunteer," get their names, and give them some choice as to what they'd like to do (rather than being a go-fer for their relative). Afterwards, say thank you to them. You might end up recruiting some genuinely willing volunteers!


About the Author: Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, Inc.(, an international training, consulting, and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism. Susan writes the "Tip of the Month" for the free Volunteer Management Online Update, e-mailed monthly upon request. These tips are not published elsewhere and this "Quick Tip" selection has been excerpted from Updates distributed between 2000 and 2005.

You can receive the free Update directly into your e-mail box every month and keep up with all of Susanís tips. Go to and submit your e-mail address using the form in the right hand column of every page or simply send an e-mail to with "subscribe" in the subject line.

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