What does it take to be a good volunteer?

10/13/2009 12:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I am starting a social enterprise that provides skills-based volunteer opportunities for professionals. These busy individuals, who will volunteer their professional skills from 2-5 hours a week, on average, include marketing experts, publicists, strategy consultants, hedge fund managers and even nonprofit development staff. We recently launched our pilot program in New York City, and I find myself inspired as well as totally scared by our first, small batch of 100 professionals.

I am inspired because these individuals have taken time out of their very busy lives to give their time and skills to nonprofits and social entrepreneurs that have articulated discrete, short-term (less than 3 month) needs. Projects include design for a tote bag for The OpEd Project, online marketing strategies for Out Against Abuse and United Prosperity, public relations support for Arts to Grow's upcoming gala, board development for Women's Education Project, and the development of a business plan for a for-profit social venture called Public Stuff, among others.

I am totally scared because the fate of my company lies in the hands of these individuals. In many ways, our success is tied to whether or not these people do a good job on the projects they've committed to. But there's a catch. These highly skilled professionals are volunteers. They are not getting paid. So the question we constantly ask ourselves is: how do we motivate busy professionals who volunteer to be as dependable and high-performing as we know they are at their regular jobs?

Instead of trying to theorize about this, I want to ask one of our most promising volunteers, A. Lauren Abele, her opinion on the matter.

1) Lauren, you work for a nonprofit as your day job, but you still choose to volunteer a significant amount of your time to a number of other causes. Who are you currently volunteering for and what motivates you?

I volunteer with Green Edge NYC,, New York Women Social Entrepreneurs, Climb the Green Ladder, and the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of NYC. From 9-5 I work on one social issue that I care about, but I'm passionate about more than just one cause. Volunteering gives me an opportunity to to work on issues I care about in my free time. Another main reason why I volunteer my skills is for professional development. As a volunteer you have freedom to pick the types of projects you want to work on, and a lot of the time organizations will let you run with this. I have had wonderful opportunities to sharpen my skill-set through volunteering.

2) Wow, you're doing so much! How do you juggle all of this on top of having a life (which I know you have)? Don't you ever get burnt out? Furthermore, you're volunteering the skills you use at your day job, which for many people I know is the last thing they want to do. Why volunteer your skills when you can get away from it all and, arguably, do something more enjoyable like planting trees?

I actually had someone ask me recently, "So, what do you do for fun?" And I thought to myself, "Is this a trick question?" I assume when people ask that question they want to know what you do that is completely unrelated to your professional life. I am really passionate about what I do and am constantly thinking about ways to help nonprofits and social enterprises successfully achieve their missions. I also rationalize my high NYC rent as my "All Access Pass" to amazing opportunities to participate in social enterprise--so I plan to take advantage of that.

It's funny, I actually wrote a blog post on why putting me to work planting trees would probably be a disaster and would definitely not lead to maximized benefit for the environmental movement as a whole. This was all prompted by something a guest lecturer, Peter Cuming, said way back when I was in college: "You best help the cause by doing what you do best." What he was encouraging us to do was utilize our comparative advantage. Comparative advantage is "the ability to produce a product most efficiently, given all the other products that could be produced" and is usually applied to international trade, highlighting the benefits of specialization in order to maximize benefits. So as far as planting trees versus writing grant proposals, planting trees doesn't leverage my comparative advantage but writing does--which is not just something I am good at but also something I really enjoy (most of the time those two are synonymous).

3) Given all your experience as a volunteer, what do you think it takes to be a "good" volunteer?

The reality of being a volunteer is that you aren't being paid to do it. Volunteering is an "extracurricular" activity and naturally falls a little lower on your life priority list--after family, work, health, friends, pets. As a result, volunteering requires a lot of realistic planning and time management as well as communication with your nonprofit manager; for example, giving them realistic deadlines (so that they can plan accordingly) and letting them know if something comes up--and preferably in advance of the 11th hour.

4) As a volunteer, do you worry about how well you do on your volunteer assignment as much as you do your paying job? What do you think are some ways to encourage "high quality" volunteering from volunteers themselves and from nonprofit managers?

I definitely do care about the quality of work that I do as a volunteer. I think of it as personal "brand management." I want people to see me as a dedicated, high-quality worker who has a lot to bring to the table and can deliver.

I think from the volunteer-side, a commitment to excellence has to come from within. If you don't have that at the start, I don't think a nonprofit can or even should spend their time trying to make that happen. However, encouraging continued excellence is definitely something that the nonprofit can share the responsibility for. Volunteer recognition and appreciation are always great motivators for continued excellence. As a nonprofit, maybe you are not able to provide incentives in the form of a check, but there are other ways you can say "thank you" that will mean a lot to a volunteer. For example, connect them to someone they should know in your network, give a shout-out at an event or meeting, comp them a ticket to your annual gala, or send a personalized note.

Lastly, I think it is fair to expect dependability and high-performance from volunteers given that: 1) nonprofits understand that flexibility is necessary for volunteers; and 2) that nonprofits themselves provide the appropriate structure and management for their volunteers to thrive. I actually know a friend of mine who is seriously considering dropping out of a volunteer commitment because of a lack of expectations of her. From her perspective this translates to a lack of resources, leadership, and direction from the nonprofit manager; and without these expectations, it's a waste of her valuable time that she could be giving to a nonprofit that is better equipped to handle hard-working, forward-thinking professionals.

5) What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a volunteer?

I think there is a fine balance between self-direction and structured guidance. As a volunteer, you are offering assistance to an organization you care about that probably has limited resources and could really use your help--so you want to be thorough, effective, accountable, and do a great job. But you are also taking a small bite out of something bigger. The best nonprofit volunteer managers help you, as the volunteer, understand the impact you are making on the overall mission the organization is trying to achieve. However, oftentimes it's up to you, as the volunteer, to put the volunteer work you're doing in context, so you understand the impact you are making. This is tough, and it requires you to step back and look at the bigger picture. Understanding the difference you are making is so important to staying motivated and sticking it through to the end. I always try to remember the organization's vision and the fact that at the end of the day, I am means to a bigger, more important, end.

6) What advice would you give to a professional who is trying to find a way to volunteer his or her skills?

Find a skills-based volunteer-matching program--that makes the whole process a lot easier and even feasible. In the past I have used, word-of-mouth,, as well as Catchafire. Otherwise, I'd recommend identifying the type of skills you want to give (accounting, design, website, grant writing, etc.) and finding organizations that are working in your area of interest. Try to attend some of their events and get to know the staff to see if the organization and their needs are a good match for you. Pitch your project idea and see what they say. Also, try to find a friend who volunteers their skills. They can help you with the process.

7) What advice would you give a nonprofit that wants to take on a skills-based volunteer?

Take the time to evaluate whether your organization is prepared to take on a professional who wants to give his or her skills. Volunteers don't just provide "free work"--they have to be managed, communicated with, and recognized. Further, professionals lead very busy lives and want to know that the time that they invest into something leads to a productive outcome, and this is also true for the volunteer work they engage in. New York volunteers are valued at $28.04 per hour. As a nonprofit manager, you want to make sure that you will provide a positive experience for the professionals who are donating valuable skills and time to your organization. Remember that these volunteers can be converted into future donors if they have a good experience, so don't make the "ask" for skills-based volunteers until you are prepared to make the most of it.

Thanks Lauren! Check out Lauren's blog for more great insights and thoughts on the social sector and follow her on Twitter @laurenabele