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A Conversation with Volunteer Managers

It’s no exaggeration that volunteers keep nonprofits across the U.S. running. Volunteers provide leadership on boards of directors, offer skills-based pro bono services, and even implement programs in some organizations. In honor of National Volunteer Week, I asked two outstanding volunteer managers for their thoughts on the importance of volunteers for their nonprofits.

Katie Bradshaw is Volunteer Manager at Girls on the Run Los Angeles County, an organization that inspires girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum that creatively integrates running. Lauren Humphrey is Volunteer Coordinator in Mar Vista for 826LA, which supports students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills and helps teachers inspire their students to write.

Both groups are the Los Angeles branch of national organizations and both serve children and youth. Another similarity is both organizations rely on volunteers to operate their programs. But each group also faces some unique and interesting challenges in working with volunteers that can be applicable for many different types of nonprofits.

What activities do volunteers handle for your organization?

Katie: We are a volunteer-driven organization with volunteers who serve as Coach/Mentors, fundraising SoleMates, Interns, Ambassadors, Running Buddies, Site Liaisons, and at the 5K Celebrations.

Lauren: The majority of our volunteers work directly with our students in all of our programs, helping students explore creative and expository writing through a variety of activities, including book-making field trips, tutoring, in-school programs, and weeknight/weekend workshops. We also have volunteers helping us behind-the-scenes, doing projects like redesigning our store’s website (timetravelmart.com), designing covers for our student-written chapbooks, or transcribing documents.

What’s your greatest challenge in recruiting volunteers? And greatest challenge in retaining volunteers?

Katie: Our greatest challenge in recruiting volunteers is finding people whose schedules and locations match with our needs in the county. Since Los Angeles has a culture of change and short-term commitment, our challenge in retaining volunteers stems from schedule and/or life changes for our volunteers.

Lauren: Our greatest challenge in recruiting volunteers is connecting with people and organizations that want to make a regular, long-term commitment. While we don’t have a set requirement, we find the most benefit (for both our students and our volunteers) comes from those volunteers who are able to come once a week or once every other week. Our greatest challenge in retaining is generally just navigating our fluctuating economy; many of our volunteers are finding work, and because the majority of our programs happen during the school day, their availability for volunteering changes.

What’s some feedback you receive from volunteers about why they volunteer for your organization?

Katie: We hear all the time that volunteering with GOTRLA is the highlight of their week. Most volunteers say they wish that this program existed when they were younger. I believe our mission to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident resonates deeply with our volunteers and keeps them motivated to serve.

Lauren: Volunteers come here for a variety of reasons, from wanting to get involved in their community, to finding out if education is a good career path for them, to loving the art of creative writing, but I think a majority of our volunteers stay because of our kids. Our kids are some of the most dynamic, entertaining, challenging, and creative people I’ve ever met, and I think they’re a big reason why our volunteers keep coming back.

What’s your greatest need in terms of volunteers (e.g. skills, availability, location, etc.)?

Katie: Our needs are seasonal in nature so we always need volunteer coach/mentors in February-May and September-December during our 10-12 week programs. In addition, we look for volunteers to serve at our 5K Celebrations in May and December. We welcome people of all skill levels and experience; you don’t have to be a runner to be a wonderful volunteer. Our program is based throughout all of Los Angeles County.

Lauren: With the number of projects we do, we need lots of volunteers, and because our programs generally happen from roughly 8 AM until 9 PM, we need people from a wide variety of schedules. But we also need volunteers with a wide variety of backgrounds; those with a creative writing or literature background are a natural fit, but we also need help with math, STEM-based projects, college access, journalism, illustration, design, etc. Many talents can find a home here at 826LA!

THANK YOU to Katie and Lauren for sharing their insights! They both bring tremendous energy and creativity to their positions. If you’d like to learn more about their organizations, please visit: Girls on the Run Los Angeles County and 826LA.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 62.8 million people in the U.S. (25.3% of the population!) volunteered at least once in the past year. Much appreciation to all of you who give your time and talents to help our communities! As Lauren said, “Volunteers are the lifeblood of our organization,” and that sentiment is shared by millions of nonprofits across the country.