Nonprofits compete heavily for volunteers: Online portals streamline sign-up process

REGION – If you are looking to volunteer, you have more opportunities to pick from than ever before. Good for you, maybe not so good for those looking for help.

Susan McQuaid, director of the Volunteer Center of the United Way of Northwest Michigan, said demand from nonprofits is the highest she's seen in her seven years with the agency. Between new organizations and festivals that are volunteer-driven, an increase in volunteer requests overall and an economy that has contributed to a decline in funding, we are a community in need.

Briant Thomas, manager of network services for the Traverse City AT&T office, is a first-time ambassador for this year's National Cherry Festival. He volunteered after hearing a local radio interview about the festival's desperate need for help.

"When somebody needs help it's not only our civic responsibility but also an opportunity," Thomas said. "It was my turn to step up."

Big organizations with big needs

The National Cherry Festival was the lone ranger for a long time in terms of the sheer number of volunteers it takes to pull off a successful festival. Last year, it had just over 1,200. As of mid-June, it had 773 toward its target of 850 to 1,000 people.

"There is definitely a premium on volunteers in this area," said Melanie Schurkamp, volunteer manager for the festival. She said although the annual celebration has a history of devoted volunteers and tradition working in its favor, filling all the necessary positions has been a struggle.

Part of the problem, she said, is the episodic nature of the event. People don't start thinking about it until it nears. "That can make organization quite a challenge," Schurkamp said. And the volunteer world is getting increasingly competitive. "There are just so many wonderful opportunities in town, and people only have so much free time," she added.

In recent years, there has been the advent of the Traverse City Film Festival, resurrection of the State Theatre, and the establishment of the Epicurean Classic, the three-day food and wine event in September, which had some 125 volunteers last year and is expecting to need a similar number this year.

Film festival organizers project they will have between 600 and 800 folks volunteering this year, and recognize they have been fortunate in attracting volunteer help.

"People volunteer for all sorts of reasons, but the one reason we hear most of all is that they love being part of something as fun, friendly, exciting and good for our area as the TCFF and State Theatre," said Lynn Bailey, State Theatre volunteer coordinator, who's been involved with the film fest since it began in 2005.

The volunteer demographic

Along with the big festivals, there are countless nonprofits and charities where the volunteer numbers are smaller, but the need is just as great.

Just before the start of summer, the Volunteer Center funded a workshop titled Rethinking Resources: Responding to New Volunteer Demographics. It was designed for organizations looking for ways to expand or revitalize their volunteer programs.

Pam Evans, program manager for NorthSky Nonprofit Network in Traverse City, facilitated the workshop. She said it's passion – not perks – that drives volunteers.

"First and foremost it's people looking at an organization's mission and wanting to support it," she said. Beyond that, it's the social aspect. "People have such little free time that they want volunteering to be social, even if it's serious work. If it isn't fun or it's a hassle, that's when you lose them."

Theresa Stachnik, manager of volunteer services at Munson Medical Center, recognizes the increased competition for volunteers, but knows free lunches aren't the way to win them over. "We've found recognition and thanking works best," she said.

Across the nation, the largest age group of individuals volunteering is people between 35 and 55 years old, noted Evans. They are employed, highly skilled, and discriminating about how they spend their time.

This age group might want to "influence the process and be more engaged," Evans noted, of the volunteer's mindset. "A busier volunteer, with more skills, is looking for you to use them well."

Technology…and personal touch

"Recruiting for volunteers works best when people are personally asked," said Sally Guzowski, the recently-appointed executive director for the Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce who is trying to find a few folks to help out in the office. "Otherwise, it's too easy for people to say 'no.'"

Both the Cherry Festival and the Film Festival/State Theatre have online portals for filling out applications and registering for shifts and strongly encourage their use as the most efficient way to manage the process. It also is appealing to the younger set of potential volunteers, both organizations said. Even the United Way's Volunteer Center launched a completely new online volunteer matching database last year which had over 2,700 hits in the first quarter of '08.

While this kind of recruitment technology is vital to any large-scale efforts, most people still need the personal touch. Both festivals also hold public events to get people signed up and host kick-off parties, orientation events and post-event appreciation gatherings.

It's those face-to-face interactions, McQuaid said, that are so critical to successfully recruiting volunteers for any organization…and keeping them. BN

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