Everyone I know who works at a NGO often hears “how can I help, besides writing a check?” Sometimes it comes from people with limited financial resources, and for them it is a genuine and reasonable question.
Often, however, it is coming from those who have the resources to give money, but simply don’t want to. People really seem to want to make their presence felt, and have a tangible impact at a nonprofit organization. Giving money that disappears into a nonprofit’s bank account doesn’t seem very personal or impactful, regardless of how necessary it may be. People are always being asked for money from countless corporations and charities, and they are tired of being nagged. They would rather give their time than their money, so they try to find ways to help without giving donations.
When I was about 13, I went to a Jimmy Page and Robert Plant concert (with my mom!). In the lobby there was a Greenpeace booth, and I eagerly signed up to become a member, with visions of zodiacs and tree-sits dancing in my head. I was finally going to kick ass and save the world. Unfortuntately, my precious $30 only earned me repeated phone calls and letters asking for more money. I always told the hapless volunteer who was calling me that I was ready and waiting to go to the front lines, but I didn’t want to “just” give money. Well, Greenpeace never brought me onboard, and I never gave them another dime. I came away feeling bitter and dejected.
Well, things sure look different from the NGO side of the fence. The NGOs I have encountered seem to have plenty of professionals onboard, they just need money to do their jobs. Volunteers are always valued if their particular skillset is needed, and such help is invaluable. But often, people without strtegically useful knowledge can become somewhat of a burden to many nonprofits by taking staff time (aka staff salary aka money) to manage and guide the volunteers. Nonprofits seem to want people’s money more than their time.
Certain nonprofits are very well suited to handle volunteers. Groups that run mentoring or literacy programs for youth need many people without a lot of advanced training. Other groups whose missions necessitate some expertise, however, often find themselves trying to politely ask for money from people who don’t want to be viewed as a dollar sign.
Regardless of what I think, this won’t change. People are still going to want to help with their hands, not with their wallets. Crafting projects that are useful to the nonprofit and gratifying for the volunteer will strengthen the bond between the two. Both come out a winner, and when the volunteer does have a few spare bucks, a volunteer-friendly organization will be well-positioned to receive a needed donation. Non-governmental organizations must be ready to meet the demand for volunteers to succeed in a model where hands-on volunteering is often a sure way to build a lasting relationship, financial and otherwise.
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