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Finding "Bootleg" Volunteers

Susan J Ellis, 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 who arrive in a roundabout way, bypassing the procedures of the volunteer services office and never being designated as "volunteers." I call these "bootleg" volunteers (as in secret, under the radar).

There are many examples, including:

  • Graduate students doing professional, but unpaid, internships. Often the contact is made by university faculty directly to the relevant department head (social work, nursing, etc.) who responds as a professional obligation or courtesy.
  • Community groups visiting once a year to do Christmas caroling, plant flowers, or run a holiday party. Here the contact may come through the therapeutic activity office.
  • Clergy in chaplaincy programs. Their visits frequently go beyond an occasional friendly chat; the clergyperson may, in turn, recruit others from a congregation to provide additional personal services. This is often treated solely 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.
  • Pro bono advisors or consultants with special expertise who donate their professional services, generally directly to top executives or the board of directors.

It doesn't really matter if these service providers think of themselves as "volunteers," nor is it necessary to use that word to describe them. But here is what they all have in common. They:

  • Receive no financial remuneration from your organization (even if they are paid by their own employers, they are not reflected on your payroll).
  • Come to the facility for short periods of time on diverse schedules.
  • Generally have no real understanding of how your organization functions prior to coming in to help.
  • Need basic instructions to do their assignments properly (even the expert consultant needs to learn how to use your phone system or database).
  • Require someone on staff to work with them effectively.
  • Have the same risk potential as anyone else and, should anything happen to them or because of them during their time on site with you, your organization is liable.
  • Deserve formal (and informal) thanks.

Who keeps track of them? Does anyone?  Are these people invisible except for the hours they spend on site?  Without a process for integrating such service providers into the organization, you don't screen them, have a record of their service, report their contributions, or even thank them properly.  They miss out on support and appreciation, while the organization doesn't get any benefit out of such important community involvement.

So go out and find those overlooked volunteers!

And here's a final tip 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!

View the archives of these Updates since 2008 - Susan's monthly Quick Tips are listed there for you.

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