The Volunteer Dilemma

written by: Mike Granetz

May 3, 2010

Last week, we completed a quick pitch for a local art gallery looking to tune up their Web presence and boost their marketing efforts. It’s a non-profit organization doing a beautiful job hosting events, showing exhibitions, and generally enriching the local arts community. And while the gallery is working to build visibility among potential patrons, it’s having no problem attracting the help of a dedicated team of volunteers.

And that, perhaps, is part of it’s challenge.

What organization in its right mind doesn’t appreciate the help of unpaid people passionate about the cause? We don’t merely welcome the idea — we do our best to let it climb right in bed and cozy up with us. The trouble is that volunteers tend to be people with a million commitments and obligations: careers, family, other interests. Nine out of ten are happy to show up and help in any way possible — from sweeping the floor to passing out Champagne. But the volunteers you need to be wary of are the folks with highly specialized skills. These are the volunteers who can bring your efforts to a dead stop. They tend to turn around projects you consider critical at their convenience.

We’ve seen this before. Whether it’s a non-profit or small business, somebody knows somebody’s nephew who is a graphic designer or web developer. They promise they can work up a perfect poster or whip the website in to shape and are happy to contribute time. They usually get things off to a good start, but then they do what most busy people who need to pay the bills do — they fade in the stretch.

Part of the reason we were approached by this organization was because, as much as they appreciated the efforts of their more technically minded volunteers, they were suffering from their inability to consistently contribute. The folks running the show have recognized that if they want to get their marketing up to a speed that matches their vision, it’s probably worth a line-item in the annual budget.

We definitely look forward to the chance to work on behalf of the gallery, and understand that non-profits generally don’t have budget to burn. We also appreciate their realization that, as much as they depend on volunteers to support and sustain their organization, they will be well served making a modest investment in a professional firm that can make getting them what they need a top priority.

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