December 28, 2018 Volunteering

3 nonprofit managers on how to be a great (productive, actually useful) volunteer

By Peak Johnson

Do your research, let your skills lead and consider donating your time during the non-holiday season, say pros from Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, Broad Street Ministry and Hopeworks Camden.

Meal service at Broad Street Ministry. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

If you’re a nonprofit in Philadelphia that wants to take on the biggest challenges facing our city, chances are volunteers are at the forefront to help you reach your goals — and there’s no denying that the holidays can sometime bring out the best in people.

But what makes the best volunteer? What are some of the things that aspiring do-gooders should avoid when reaching out to different coordinators?

“I try to make sure we align volunteers with positions that fit their skills or what they desire to be a part of,” said Christine Serwan, volunteer manager at Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia. “What stands out the most to me is someone that is willing to make a commitment and learn more about Habitat to further support our mission.”

Volunteers need to help coordinators help them find their place with Habitat, Serwan said. Potential volunteers should take their time and reach about what opportunities the org has available and what the time commitments are.

While the nonprofit welcomes volunteers of all levels, it’s always looking to engage skilled volunteers — specifically people with experience in construction trades who would like to donate their time and expertise to advance Habitat’s Homeownership Program.

“It smooths the process if a person has done their homework so that we can find a way to engage them with our mission in a timely manner,” Serwan said. “When someone expresses interest in days or times where volunteer opportunities don’t exist, it’s evident that we’ll need to do a lot of follow-up communication, and the process becomes longer. About 100 new interested volunteers reach out to us each month, and we try to quickly find ways to utilize everyone’s strengths.”

(Learn more about volunteering with Habitat here.)

Christine Moriarty, manager of volunteer programming at homelessness nonprofit Broad Street Ministry (BSM), thinks of her org’s volunteer program as an opportunity to turn strangers into neighbors.

“Volunteers are a key in building the trusting relationships that are foundational for moving lives forward,” Moriarty said. “Volunteering is a community’s best conduit for connectedness. Giving your time, skills, and conversation to others is not only transformational for those receiving services, but for the volunteers as well.”

Much like many other nonprofits, BSM has an influx of volunteer enthusiasm around the holidays. While BSM  welcomes the selfless spirit of this time of year, the truth is that their guests still need volunteer support after the holidays, especially between mid-August and Labor Day.

“Planning your volunteer support outside of the holidays could, in fact, be the most generous use of your time and skills,” Moriarty said. “We often say that volunteerism is an area of ‘feast or famine.’ You will have times where you have requests for accommodating large groups of volunteers that don’t necessarily fit the time-frame of your services.  You’ll also go through a ‘volunteer drought’ where you can’t seem to find enough volunteers. The key is committing to getting the support from volunteers that your organization actually needs.”

(Learn more about volunteering with BSM here.)

Just across the bridge with a focus on education, technology and entrepreneurship, Hopeworks Camden has a variety of ways that volunteers can assist them.

“Volunteers are proof to our young people that the world is a caring place, proof that when you ask for help, you will get it. This is something that many of us take for granted, but is a powerful lesson for young people who have had to do many things on their own,” said Executive Director Dan Rhoton.

One of the biggest challenges when recruiting volunteers, Rhoton said, is helping them understand that free labor is helpful, but labor in addition to expertise can be really helpful.

Volunteers who do not have a sense of what they can offer to Hopeworks’ students makes it difficult for the organization to find a place for them. When volunteers bring their skills, connections and their best selves, it’s is a win-win for everyone, Rhoton said.

“Hopeworks recruits volunteers with the same process and care that we do employees,” he said. “Volunteers are a key part of our operation, and must bring a skill set that we need in order for us to use their time and energy in a valuable way. If a volunteer does not have skills that we need, that means we should match them with an organization that does need their skills, not tie up their time with low-return labor.”

(Learn more about volunteering with Hopeworks here.)