Regardless of whether an internship is paid, limiting opportunities to interns narrows the pool of candidates who can contribute to an organization’s cause. Volunteers can come from a range of ages and backgrounds, but the majority of interns are young college students.
“It’s unfortunate to think that other people who aren’t students or don’t have the hours during the day to commit to an internship can’t contribute,” says Holmes. Go on websites from New York’s Henry Street Settlement to San Francisco’s Playwrights Foundation, and you’ll find that the only open opportunities listed for volunteers are labeled as internships with six- to 15-hour minimum weekly commitments.
Using interns to replace unreliable volunteers isn’t an option for every organization, whether it's due to their small size or the nature of the work. For those non-profits, the challenge of poor volunteer retention is countered by providing opportunities that volunteers will find fulfilling and meaningful.
Shaharris Beh is the founder of HackerNest, a three-year-old nonprofit that organizes global tech communities to build tools that alleviate poverty. With only two full-time staff, the organization has learned some hard lessons about managing volunteers.
“Many volunteers come in with the attitude of ‘if I don’t do it, I’m not hurting anyone,’ but that’s not true,” says Beh. “Because of volunteers failing to do their work, we have lost sponsors. We have lost venues. Trusting volunteers is critical for your work but can also shoot you in the foot.”
Beh has learned to approach potential volunteers in a more circumspect way. “We’ve become wary of people who want to help. I want to make sure this is win-win and isn’t charity for them. We’re not interested in taking help from someone who we can’t help back, whether that’s resume references, fulfilling volunteer hour requirements or just socializing.” While this may limit potential volunteers, it means those who sign up are more invested.
Bob Holdsworth has also learned that keeping volunteers starts with knowing what they hope to get out of the experience. Holdsworth is a volunteer paramedic who consults for ambulance services and fire departments. The training alone takes a year and costs departments as much as $4,000 per volunteer. He has seen volunteers make it completely through training, only to drop out before ever making it onto the field.
“Every volunteer has a reason for wanting to be there, whether it’s social, a personal connection to the cause, or a patriotic desire to give back to the community,” says Holdsworth, who says committed volunteers are a vanishing breed. He recommends buffering recruitment by assigning new volunteers a mentor, and giving them easy tasks before making larger commitments. According to Holdsworth, putting extra effort into instilling a sense of involvement and accomplishment at the beginning can have a big payoff.