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Why Nonprofit Workers Make the Best Nonprofit Volunteers

Many of us begin working at nonprofits because we want to give back to the important causes we believe in. But the longer you work in the nonprofit field, the more it can feel like doing your time rather than “giving back”. In extreme cases, there are all kinds of stories on nonprofit burnout (like this one, this one, this one  and this one) that illustrate the toll nonprofit work can have on its workers. And oh yeah, there’s this.

That isn’t to say that long-term nonprofit careers can’t be rewarding...very much the opposite. The challenge becomes finding new ways to stay motivated and inspired to do more for the causes you care about…and keep perspective on the elusive balance between work and personal life.

Recently, the staff at Salsa Labs had the opportunity to dedicate their volunteer hours to Bikes for the World, an organization that collects unwanted bicycles and delivers them to lower income people and select institutions in developing countries, to enhance lives and livelihoods through better transport. We spent the day dismantling, twisting, loading and packing hundreds of bikes into a shipping container to eventually be shipped to communities in Costa Rica. 

See for yourself how much fun we had while helping out for a great cause.

But this experience got me thinking about how volunteering can sometimes take a back seat especially when your day job is working for a nonprofit. After all, when so many nonprofit jobs are directly or indirectly focused on the the recruitment and engagement of volunteer leaders, who has the time/money/energy to even consider volunteering their time for another organization? 

And this probably sums up the reaction you'll get for even asking whether your organization has the capacity for it:


However, creating and promoting a policy that enables more nonprofit workers to take advantage of volunteering can actually go a long way in improving morale and organizational loyalty. 

For years, and especially since the recent economic downturn, many businesses have seen the value in corporate volunteer programs. So why shouldn’t nonprofit workers – who intrinsically understand nonprofit culture and the important role volunteers play do the same?

Think nonprofit volunteering couldn’t work for your organization? Here are a few different approaches you can take on getting buy-in from The Powers That Be:

  • Gain new organizational perspective from seeing how other organizations operate on the inside. Encourage spending employee volunteer hours at nonprofits that can enhance your employee’s day-to-day work.
  • Or take the previous point one step further and create a nonprofit exchange program - Find “sister organizations” with related, but not the same, missions that would be interested in regularly “exchanging” staff. That way you’re not losing staff time, but actually gaining it - just applying it differently. 

    Identify specific projects that could enhance each organization in a different way:Organization A  would share a few members of their strong digital team with Organization B that wants to create their first online advocacy petition. In turn, Organization B would “exchange” a few of their Development folks to do a training on better grant-writing. Obviously, finding the right “sister organization” to match-up with is key. But a program of this sort can be beneficial for both employee and organization alike.
  • Re-energize seasoned employees - Because nonprofit burnout takes its toll on employees who can’t seem to get out of the daily grind, a volunteer program can help break the cycle. Use it as an incentive for employees who have a few years under their belt.
  • Improve training for new employees - Just as previous nonprofit experience is an asset to your organization when hiring new employees, so should a deeper familiarity and understanding for what it’s like to be a volunteer. The volunteer experience puts you in a completely different environment and requires you to take a more “service-first” mentality. This can be a big change, but a valuable lesson, for entry-level and executive staff alike. And enabling your newest employees to give back through volunteering can help you both attract (and retain) quality nonprofit talent. 

Does your organization participate in any volunteer programs? Why do you think it would (or would not) work for your organization? Join the conversation on Facebook.


Topics: Strategy