How to attract dedicated volunteers? Respect the needs of those who serve


The ink was hardly dry on a recent column on reader's favorite gripes about nonprofits when the phone started ringing. Most of the calls were focused on my reference to a board member who had complained to me about the lack of a systems approach to volunteerism.

Reflecting its commitment to increasing volunteerism in the state, a welcome call arrived from the Governor's Office on Volunteerism (Volunteer Maryland!), which wanted more specifics about the complaint about volunteerism.

Another call, in particular, was intriguing. After a brief conversation about volunteering, I agreed to meet for a cup of coffee with Stanley Plaine. Looking at him, you would think that Stanley Plaine was pretty much your average senior citizen. When I met him, he was well-dressed and well-spoken, seemingly younger than his 70-plus years. But, take it from me, Stanley Plaine is no average Joe.

Formerly a shoe salesman and store manager, Plaine admittedly waited until his retirement years to bloom. Egged on by his

daughter, Plaine has devoted the past dozen or so years to developing volunteer programs. And, boy, has he developed volunteer programs.

Developed and launched Senior Box Office, his resume says. Originated and implemented the Volunteer Clearinghouse for Associated Jewish Charities. There are more President, Board member, Coordinator and Developer titles next to his name than any half-dozen people his age. In 1986, Plaine was named The Associated's Volunteer of the Year, no small feat in itself. The way I figure, Plaine has earned a podium for his views on volunteerism.

"So much is lost," Plaine says about his observations on charity volunteer programs. "Most nonprofits don't allow enough openness. They don't want to listen to volunteers' suggestions for improvement."

How about a systems approach to volunteerism -- you know, where there is a recruitment plan, a procedure for listening to volunteers, volunteer recognition, a liability plan, volunteer skill development? "No way," Plaine replies. "Volunteers are simply not treated as staff at all. Not in the organizations I've seen."

"You need to look at volunteerism from both the organization's needs and those of the volunteers," the soft-spoken Plaine continues. "Some want to stuff envelopes, true, but others want more cerebral work. Nonprofits need to plan for that. That's what I try to do."

And, what about the concept of volunteers as unpaid staff? "Well, nonprofits tend to put volunteers in a box and give them no room for growth or flexibility. In some instances I've witnessed, they will take a volunteer's ideas and use them without attribution to the volunteer, as if they don't exist."

At age 58, Plaine suffered a heart attack that nearly cost him his life. Nearing retirement anyway, he decided to quit the make-a-buck world and devote his efforts to community service. He has coordinated projects for the Maryland Board of Education, helped coordinate Project SAGE for the Baltimore County Board of Education and was the originator of the first Baltimore County Senior Prom, to name but a few of his many accomplishments.

Right now, Plaine is actively looking for the right volunteer experience with the right charity. He can afford to be choosy.

"I don't want just any experience," he confided to me. "What I'm looking for is an organization that is looking for someone with my experience and skills."

That may be more than some nonprofits bargain for when they seek a quiet, nonassertive senior volunteer. But it also reinforces my assessment of what many within this valuable volunteer pool want. Nonprofits need to plan for this when designing and evaluating their programs.

"When you're not paid, you're not afraid to say what's on your mind," Plaine says -- well -- plainly. Instead of encouraging this experienced group to speak up and participate in staff deliberations, senior volunteers are too often shushed into silence. An enormous opportunity is lost.

Nonprofits that are into total quality management need to develop or fine-tune their volunteer programs so that maximum advantage is taken of their volunteers.

That includes an active listening loop that empowers volunteers as well as staff. According to Plaine, demanding any less is a waste of the volunteer's time.

(Lester A. Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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