What Are Volunteers For?

Disclaimer: This article is solely the opinion of the author and does not reflect the opinion of Washington Bikes, its volunteers, its board, or its employees.

So far this blog has focused on bicycling-related topics, which makes good sense, what with the Bicycle Alliance’s interest in bikes and all. Nary a word has been written, though, about the Bicycle Alliance as a nonprofit. Nonprofits exist in an interesting world of grants, donations, and in-kind help.

Nearly all nonprofit organizations rely on volunteers (pictured: Volunteer Ted Inkley working at the Bicycle Alliance’s Bike Expo booth) to achieve their missions. How, though, should an organization like the Bicycle Alliance use volunteer labor? Pablo Eisenberg sums up one common view of volunteer labor succinctly: “Although volunteers can certainly provide useful ancillary services, they cannot solve deeply rooted problems.” On the other end of the spectrum, Richard Lynch argues that volunteers are as reliable or unreliable as paid staff, and that a good volunteer program enables an organization to:

  1. Engage the community as a partner in accomplishing its mission.
  2. Access to all the skills available in the community.
  3. Accomplish its mission more easily.
  4. Escape its financial constraints.

Other benefits of a program that uses volunteers at all levels include, but are not limited to:

  • Expanding the organization’s influence.
  • Increasing community representation within the organization.
  • Increasing donations, since volunteers are often also long-term donors.
  • More depth and focus on one project than a staff person, drawn in a variety of directions, could normally provide.

In short, volunteers can enable an organization to meet all its goals and frees the organization from its constraints.

Sounds pretty ideal, doesn’t it? Yet most organizations limit their volunteers’ effectiveness for lack of imagination about what volunteers can do for them. I hope, during the remainder of my tenure as an AmeriCorps intern, to begin expanding the Bicycle Alliance’s volunteer program. Some day we will offer the kind of vibrant, exciting volunteering activities that attract bicyclists of all stripes. Will you join us in making this vision a reality?

We can only accomplish what we believe we can accomplish. I believe we can do this. If you’re interested in helping me to revolutionize the Bicycle Alliance’s impact with a strong, exciting, effective volunteer program, contact me at katief (at) wabikes.org.

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