Dear Nonprofiteer,

Your posts about volunteerism seem addressed to nonprofits—how they can better meet the desires of their volunteers. Do you think you could write a corresponding post about how volunteers can better meet the desires of nonprofits? I know you’ve said that we as volunteers need to think more about who we want to be, rather than what we want to do. I’d love an expansion on that.

I’ve been trying to volunteer with an organization that works with children, or hunger, or the blind, for about two years and I keep having near-disastrous experiences on the way to becoming a volunteer. Maybe it’s me? I really want to volunteer with a local organization and have contacted several, but something always seems to go wrong—either the nonprofit doesn’t respond to me or the work they give me doesn’t match my expectations. It’s very frustrating!

Do you have any thoughts or advice?

Signed, Tripping on the Way up the Aisle

Dear Tripping:

There’s very little a volunteer can do to deal with a nonprofit that simply doesn’t respond, although using a Rule of Three might help: don’t give up ’til you’ve e-mailed, and then e-mailed again, and then called. If those three efforts at outreach don’t produce a face-to-face meeting, cut your losses and move on. By the same token, don’t give up after the face-to-face meeting ‘til you’ve e-mailed a thank-you note, and then e-mailed a follow-up, and then called; but if that’s not enough to produce a specific assignment, what you’ve encountered is a nonprofit not yet ready to take advantage of a volunteer.

And there are plenty of those, which somehow is the elephant in the living room of the nonprofit world: that agencies with functioning volunteer programs are very much in the minority. No amount of calling us “the voluntary sector” will magically produce volunteer opportunities in agencies up to their asses in alligators. So the first thing a prospective volunteer can do to be useful (and magnify her chances of actually being able to contribute) is to recognize, and articulate her recognition of, the fact that managing volunteers takes time, and effort, and expertise, and that all of those things are in pretty short supply at most nonprofits because they all cost money. An initial cover letter that says, “If you don’t have a full-fledged volunteer program, I understand it’s a little difficult to figure out what to do with a single volunteer.  But please let’s get together and talk through it” will flag you instantly as a person who understands the nonprofit world and is therefore likely to be useful in some capacity or other.

But on the subject of volunteering as an expression of who you want to be: it’s hard to get to that question directly, as it’s such a huge one, but here are a few ways of backing into it. Try thinking a bit more rigorously about why you want to go to a particular agency. “I’d like to volunteer because I like children”—however accurate, and laudable—doesn’t give an Executive Director very much to go on. But “I’d like to volunteer because your program of teaching at-risk youth to do gymnastics reminds me of my own childhood experience of finding a home away from home in the Red Cross Junior Lifesaving Program” at least gives you and the ED a place from which to start the conversation: she can say, “Yeah, that gymnastics program is great but the new program we’re doing teaching boys to cook is turning out to be an even more powerful tool . . . ” and then you’re off to the races talking about what the program does, what it could do with more staff (or volunteers!), what they’re afraid it won’t do . . . and so on. If you share your own passion, you give agency staff the opportunity to get back in touch with theirs—and that’s a basis for beginning to work together.

Notice that you’re not required to say, “I’d like to volunteer here because in five years I see myself running a social service agency of my own,” or whatever.  Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the successful match of person and volunteer assignment is the mistaken belief that it’s like a job interview—a belief reified and magnified by the number of experts shaking their fingers about the need for “volunteer job descriptions” and “accountability” and “checking references on volunteer resumes.” This is NOT a job; it’s an environment in which to be of service. And when we think of ourselves as servants—in the broadest sense, the way people call politicians they like “public servants”—we’re less concerned about our knowledge, skills and abilities and more with what we want to help get done in the world. “I can’t sleep at night unless I’m doing something to help children grow up without rickets” might be greeted with raised eyebrows (or indifferent agreement) in a job interview, but it’s the essential sentence in a conversation about volunteering with UNICEF.

Another “Who do you want to be?” question has to do with the actual disposal of your time on a volunteer assignment. You need to know, so you can tell the agency staff member, whether or not you want to do direct client service. In some places, you won’t be able to (and most child welfare agency Web sites are quite clear about this); but often you’ll be offered the choice between serving food to homeless people and working back in the stockroom where the food is donated; between teaching displaced homemakers computer skills or helping the outreach staff find locations for those classes; between visiting terminally ill people and working with medical administrators to make sure the need for hospice care is identified promptly and responded to appropriately.

The Nonprofiteer herself is shy about working directly with clients, so she volunteers at Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic: thus she’s able to do something useful while sitting safely in a soundproof booth. So she believes, or at least hopes, that we’re all able to be of most service doing things we’re most comfortable with. No one’s eager to describe herself as “unwilling to work with people who smell bad,” but it’s something you need to realize and own before you sign up for an overnight shift in the Night Ministry’s van. Likewise, it’s important to recognize that you’re scared of courts and yelling before you join a domestic violence hotline.

Be sure to distinguish, though, between things you’re afraid of simply because you don’t know how to do them yet—agencies will train you about what to say to people who are threatening suicide—and things you’re afraid of, period. The first can be overcome; the second really requires a different form of volunteerism.

Finally, every volunteer—and the Nonprofiteer can’t say this strongly enough—should consider whether s/he might be a suitable Board member for every agency that lights his/her fire.  It’s remarkable how few people picture themselves in the Board room, compared to how few would actually fit there and be useful.  (Women, especially, forget to think of themselves in the role of overseer, or person-being-answered-to.) Of course, at most functioning agencies you can’t just walk up and say, “I want to be on your Board;” but if you can imagine yourself taking serious governance responsibilities—because you’re an accountant, or a lawyer, or just bossy like the Nonprofiteer—then it’s sensible to talk about management issues in your very first contact with the organization.  “I wonder if you have any Board committees—for public relations or fundraising—that non-Board members can serve on?” The answer will generally be “yes” (or the less elegant “Oh, my God, are you kidding?  You’d really be willing to do that?”) and if you take a committee role and discharge it ably, you’ll find yourself on the Board in very short order. And there’s hardly anything you could do for an arts or social service agency that would be more valuable than that.

More succinctly: one possible answer to “Who do I want to be?” is “A leader.”

imageKelly Kleiman, who blogs as The Nonprofiteer, is a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays about the arts, philanthropy and women’s issues have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; and on websites including and