New resource – LinkedIn’s volunteer marketplace

As you probably know by now, LinkedIn (which used to bill itself with some paraphrase of “like Facebook, but for the professional you” – which is not too bad a comparison to this day) has just launched a volunteer marketplace to help connect organizations with volunteer openings to people who want to add volunteer experience to their resume.

Thankfully, it’s not free.  It’s close enough, from a general perspective – they’re only charging 10% of what they charge businesses to post a job listing, which puts it just under $20.  But hopefully that little bitty bit of money is enough to make organizations ask themselves: is this a good idea for us?  (It’s amazing how little money it takes to trigger that momentary hesitation and introspection for people!)

So…is this something that’s right for you?

Volunteers aren’t free labor.

Really.  This is a common misconception.  At a most basic level, you need to train them, you need to manage them.  That’s a lot of staff time, and there’s a great likelihood that you’ll be putting in more man-hours than you’re reaping in work product at first.  Their writing will have to be edited a lot until they sound like your organization.  Their interactions need to be debriefed until you’re sure they’re representing your organization well.  Even volunteers with a great deal of experience who are coming in as unpaid consultants will need your time and input if they are to have anything useful to report.

Then there’s the downside.  What’s the worst that could happen, you say?  They come in, they do something useful, great, they don’t have anything useful to contribute, we’re right back where we started, so there’s no harm.  WRONG.

Let’s say you get a graphic designer to donate their time to rework your website or do some mailings for you…if you don’t wind up using their hard work, they’re very likely to be annoyed. Pissed off, really.  Extend that to any volunteer work – people want to be useful and needed.  If you are wasting their time – not maximizing their experience, not giving them what they need to be useful, not making sure that their work is relevant and used – they’re going to be upset.  And they’re not going to keep that to themselves – one way or another, bad volunteer experiences will color your reputation.

You need to be prepared to get what you’re paying for.

Let’s go back to the problem of the graphic designer who’s working for free.  If you don’t like their first take and you don’t want to just drop their work unused, once you’ve got them as a volunteer, your only hope is to treat them like a real vendor and make sure you’re working with them to get something you like.  But you’re not paying them.  So…are they going to make infinite changes, are they going to place your project as a priority, are they invested in your happiness?  If you had unlimited funds, would this be the contractor you chose?  Beggars can’t be choosers, goes the old adage.

Yes, there’s a tradeoff between what you’d love to have if money were no object and what you can responsibly afford…but make sure you’re crunching the numbers.  Unpaid volunteers can be overpaid with sacrifices in quality of work and agonizing process in getting to that not-so-great product.  And you’ve still got to deal with making sure their volunteer experience is positive.

You need to be prepared for the day they leave.

I’ve seen the aftermath of this too many times – a board decides they need a social media presence (note, I didn’t say strategy, which says it all, doesn’t it?) and hires a college intern to tweet and Facebook, etc., on their account.  Without getting into all the reasons this is a pretty bad idea for an internship, period, let’s look at what happens when they leave.  Too often, you have an organization that built important job functions into an unpaid and obviously not long-term position…and now any gains they made from tiptoeing into these new areas is wiped out instantly.

If you’re asking a volunteer to take on new responsibilities and expand what your organization can do (social media is such an easy example, but there are infinite possibilities), you need to know who will take on those tasks if they quit tomorrow.  And that means getting the volunteer to do the annoying, burdensome task of documenting whatever they’re doing so that someone else CAN pick up where they left off.  And if you know that you’d want to replace that person because the paid staff can’t handle whatever it is they’re doing long-term, you need to be managing that position the same way you would a paid position…keeping your eyes out for signs they might depart, checking in with them to make sure you really know what they’re shouldering, and being ready to launch a search at a moment’s notice in an emergency.

Don’t take on a volunteer if they’re going to become irreplaceable.  Other than for their wonderful indomitable spirit, of course.

So, do you have a job you need a volunteer to do?

Is it a volunteer contract job (with a defined project to be completed and a discrete length of time that it will take) or is it an ongoing volunteer need?  Be clear about that in your job description.

What will you be offering to your volunteer that might have value to them?  Maybe they care about your mission and have more time/talent than disposable income, and will feel great about contributing.  Maybe they’re adding important experience to their resume.  Maybe they’re looking for network connections because they want to transition to your city or the nonprofit sector.  Can you offer any of those in return?  Is it something else entirely?

Are you taking this seriously as a human resources project?  Are you ready to hire a volunteer as if you were paying them?  Make sure that all of the above are analyzed and that you’re only going to move forward with someone who’s a good fit?  Are you ready to not hire anyone, if you don’t find the right person?

This all boils down to two things:

  1. IF you’re actually ready for the responsibilities and demands of having some key volunteers in your organization, this new marketplace is a great new tool.  There are a lot of folks on LinkedIn, the transparency of their resume and networks is a nice bonus, and apparently 82% of their network members are looking forward to taking part in the marketplace in some way.  That gives you some amazing access to talent, particularly if you can structure a remote opportunity and open up the full geography of LinkedIn members.
  2. You need to be particularly careful when evaluating the applicants you get through the marketplace.  For most of you, this is going to be a dramatic expansion of your applicant pool. Don’t get distracted by irrelevant details (good colleges, jobs at big name companies, etc.) – the fundamentals of fit remain the same:  Are they up for the job you need them to do?  What do they want in return?

One technicality:

Before you move forward, make sure that you’ve set up your LinkedIn Company Page.  You need it before you can post.

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