When volunteers may not be your best option


Creative and Strategic Director - Passionate about working with charities to ensure effective communication with users, supportes and other stakeholders.
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Creative and Strategic Director - Passionate about working with charities to ensure effective communication with users, supportes and other stakeholders.

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A recent survey by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations found that roughly nine out of ten charities employ no paid staff. Keeping day-to-day running costs under strict control is vital to third-sector organisations, so they can allocate most of their funds to service delivery.

So, volunteers play a vital role, both as trustees and in support roles. They make a charity financially viable, and they strengthen the organisation’s community roots.

Delegating tasks to volunteers is a form of outsourcing. But they are not the only outsourcing option. One of the key strategic issues for managing a charity is deciding when to engage professional suppliers rather than making use of the volunteer base.

For example, one evening last week a young lady knocked on our house door. She was a professional door-to-door fundraiser looking for people to sign up to a monthly donation. This time, she said, she was representing Save The Children but the previous week she’d been collecting for a dog charity. I’d guess she gets paid on a commission basis.

So, why would a charity pay a professional fundraiser rather than asking a volunteer to call at the house? One factor no doubt is that few volunteers will raise their hand when it comes to door knocking. Who enjoys cold calling, particularly when you can run into hostile reactions? No door-step sales people here!

But lack of volunteers wouldn’t be the only factor. She was good. You have to be, when you’re on commission. She probably produces a better result. She raises more money – even after her commissions are deducted.

A major charity like Save The Children must have carried out many fundraising experiments. What works? What works less well? They must have concluded that it’s worth paying part of these monthly donations to fundraisers, who have sufficient skills and self-confidence to sign up new donors. The strategy delivers value for money.

Fundraising is just one example of a task where, though volunteers often play a valuable support role, it might make sense to pay a professional. This can the case when a task:

  • Requires a specialised skillset which the available volunteers do not possess
  • Is vital to the long-term wellbeing of the organisation
  • Needs to be carried out quickly

We find that many charities, who ask for our input on graphic design or websites or marketing strategy, do so after trying the volunteer route. Design seems so easy these days. Anyone can use inexpensive software on their home computer.

Sometimes it works well. But other times, charities discover that volunteer-led marketing initiatives can be disappointing. Nothing has been lost, though. Nothing except time and, perhaps, a limited monetary outlay.

We are happy to look at what your volunteers have produced so far, and discuss whether you have ideas you’d like to keep – or whether you want to ditch your current attempts and have us start afresh.

And, if you do want our input, we’ll get on with the job quickly and efficiently. Marketing does play a vital role in the ability of your charity to deliver to those who need your help. Whether your marketing involves print or digital channels, it can help you establish a professional image, produce great fundraising results, and attract the right people: trustees, staff and volunteers.

Volunteers are vital to the third sector. In our experience, however, design and marketing is one of those areas where charities should seriously consider working with a professional partner.

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