Trying New Things and Taking Measure

The Volunteers for Nonprofits logo - a seedling cupped in a hand

Written by Paul Ginsberg

8th May 2022

Welcome to the story of the Volunteers for Nonprofits group, which is closing down after 16 months of operation. I wanted to share my experience, in case it helps others with their own projects. It also helps me process my thoughts on the adventure.

Background

Back at the end of 2020 the Nonprofit Dreamin team were preparing for their conference. As a team member, I came to understand how many nonprofits were struggling in their mission. They had enthusiasm, ideas and, at a minimum, 10 donated licences from Salesforce.org, but lacked the another, particular, resource to put their plans and aspirations into action – people.

I realised that there might be a place for a Salesforce-specific talent exchange, where volunteers and nonprofits could meet.

Minimum Viable Product

The aim of an MVP is to do the minimum work possible, to see if an idea will “fly”. No point expending lots of time and energy if thoughts and assumptions were wrong. Of course for this project, I underestimated how much work would be required, but it was still fun!

With the challenge identified, I came up with an idea of creating a Trailblazer Group. Nonprofits could post their vacancies and volunteers could then apply.

But then I immediately realised that wouldn’t be enough. There are many well-meaning volunteers and nonprofits out there, but without the right skills on either side, it could easily leave nonprofits in a worse position than when they started out.

To this end I created a survey, with the help of others, to try and manage people’s expectations, and also ensure everyone had a minimum skillset (both volunteers and nonprofits). If people met the criteria as set out in the survey, they would be admitted to the group. This met the goals of being clear and transparent.

In hindsight, one of the failings was that although the entry criteria was transparent, volunteers couldn’t see how many nonprofits were using the system. A few thought to ask what was the likelihood of a successful match – they will go far in life!

Aside: Free like a puppy!

Salesforce isn’t simple to set up. It may have been once, but certainly not now. It’s a hugely powerful machine and damage can be easily caused; that’s before you consider return on investment – whatever time is invested in setting up Salesforce correctly, can equally be invested elsewhere, so where’s the biggest return?

This is exactly like a puppy. If you leave a puppy alone you’ll have mess everywhere, but if you feed it (that’s an unavoidable cost), and look after it, you’ll have a loving companion for life.

Paul smiling broadly, with his dog Jessy, in his lap. Whether Jessy wants to be on the lap isn't entirely clear.
One of these beings is from Romania and required house training!

What I wanted to ensure was that potential volunteers would be suitably skilled up, and that the nonprofits had the right level of expectations to make the best use of volunteers. Come to think of it, volunteers can be like puppies too!

All this led to the creation of a series of articles and trailmixes, to help address some knowledge gaps. I’m incredibly grateful to my bank of knowledgeable friends, both inside and outside of Salesforce.org who wrote or rewrote chunks of these.

Advertising

So the Volunteers for Nonprofits (V4N) group went live. 

We celebrated with some publicity at Nonprofit Dreamin (which was our the aim in all our planning) and the aforementioned series of articles on SalesforceBen. 

Note: References to the V4N group has now been removed from the SFB articles as it is no longer relevant.

But we couldn’t advertise the group as we had no money. Also there is an entirely reasonable ecosystem of nonprofit consultancies offering paid services to nonprofits; these companies understandable wouldn’t be interested in advertising the existence of a free “rival” just for the reason that they are concentrating on growing their own businesses – it would be a distraction to advertise something else, even if you ignored the potential to lose prospective customers.

So occasionally the group was tagged in on the Trailblazer community as and when appropriate, was mentioned at an nonprofit presentations and the occasional blog or shout out; it also got shout outs from various other people. Being honest, perhaps that was a challenge, and an area that could have been done differently.

Also, I wonder about barriers to entry, especially for nonprofits. The sheer volume of messaging that one receives from Salesforce and Salesforce.org can be overwhelming; the likelihood of our offer standing out, and the application process – even though we tried to keep it as simple as possible – no doubt prevented some organisations from benefitting.

Stats

On one level the group was highly successful – the group had over 20 applicants a week (1000+ in total) and a humbling 20% went on to complete the entrance criteria. I am also hugely grateful to Rebecca Heald for stepping in and helping me process the applicants, and with the more managerial side of things.

The ratio of successful applicants was fairly consistent at three volunteers for every one nonprofit. On the face of it, I naively thought that looked like a healthy ratio. Not every volunteer would be available, but this would leave nonprofits with a reasonable amount of choice from the pool of candidates, I thought. In the end we had 50 nonprofits and 160 potential volunteers who completed the sign up process.

What I hadn’t counted on was the number of “lurker” nonprofits, joining to see what options were available, but then didn’t follow through with actually posting an advert for any number of reasons. Out of the 50 nonprofits that joined, only 10 posted adverts, with another 3 which could be classed as potential adverts. 

Adding to the pain was that some nonprofits weren’t clear in what they were looking for, despite all being sent a personal message recommending the following factors for a successful outcome:

Thank you so much for signing up to the Volunteers for Nonprofits Group!

We can see that you are looking for a volunteer. For what it’s worth we have a number of volunteers, with all ranges of experiences and availability. Feel free to post and set the ball rolling…

Here is a good example: [link to a recent job post, now no longer available]

The above example is great it helps ensure the right skills from volunteers:

  • background details about the organisation
  • the tasks the organisation wants to  achieve
  • any particular skill(s) already identified
  • a closing date for applications (typically 1-2 weeks from when you post)
  • the date that any potential volunteer can be expected to be notified by
  • contact details (e.g. email address) to send CVs/applications and for any questions
  • the time commitment (e.g. hours per month or total time), including whether daytime availability is a hard requirement, and the timezone

Alternatively come back to me/us if you wish to discuss at all/bounce ideas around etc.

p.s. Icing on the cake: if you get a successful candidate, do let me know, as this will help us spread the word about our group 🙂

Best regards, Paul and Rebecca

Survey Time

With all the above considered, I started to feel I was misleading potential volunteers, who were spending ten, if not hundreds, of hours studying NPSP without a significant chance of getting a volunteering position. Rebecca recommended we do a survey for all group members. After all, data is the ultimate judge!

So we posted the survey to our group of 200+ members and after a week didn’t get a single response. The conclusion we drew from this was that our members were not reading the messages. This was slightly demoralising, but also made us question the effectiveness of the channel, particularly as messages/the Trailblazer Community weekly digest was the only way we had to contact our members. I’ve written about this before.

We then specifically messaged the 13 people that posted roles or potential roles. After a week we had received three responses. Two were favourable, but the third said: “It turned out the question I was asking wasn’t complex and someone reached out and gave me some support via messaging.”

Reflections

For me, my overall takeaway is that this group is not working well enough; not that I had any metrics to start with as I was stepping into the unknown. If I had listened to Johann Furmann’s regular advice and set some metrics at the start – even some crazy figures – then I would probably have reached this conclusion earlier.

I recognise that many nonprofits and volunteers find each other via posts on local Trailblazer groups, amongst other resources, so their needs are often met elsewhere; though I would prefer that some volunteers were more familiar with the Nonprofit Success Pack first, to enable them to make more informed decisions.

My other thought is that it is better to have tried and failed, than not to have tried at all. This way I know what doesn’t work, so I’m no longer plagued with the “what if” question, but equally I remember all the many my times crazy schemes have worked out, leaving me as the (mostly) happy person that I am today.

That said, it doesn’t take away from the efforts that volunteers have put in, to join this group and help nonprofits. It is with absolute regret that this didn’t work out.

In addition: (apologies, but I have to count the successes too; it’s good to maintain perspective!)

  • fun opportunities to work with others, which I wouldn’t have otherwise had
  • greater insights into the struggles that smaller nonprofits have when using Salesforce
  • a whole series of well-read articles on SalesforceBen that wouldn’t have otherwise been penned
  • many people trained and having greater awareness of the NPSP and how to successfully get the best out of volunteers/volunteering at nonprofits
  • hopefully others can learn from this venture

Observations

My passion is for volunteers and smaller nonprofits, as that’s how I started out many years ago, so here are a few tangential observations.

If you want to volunteer, don’t just focus on your Salesforce skills, though that would be handy in terms of professional development. Anything you learn as a volunteer can still be applied in a Salesforce context. Nonprofits really struggle with process and the practical application of ideas. All you learn around those topics, can still be applied in every Salesforce project you will ever work on.

For those working on helping nonprofits, check that Salesforce is the right fit. If you just want to take donations and send out the occasional newsletter, Salesforce may be overkill. Small nonprofits rarely have the capacity to set up and maintain these systems from scratch, which is where I start to see the pain creep in. Even though the Salesforce licences are free, the total cost of ownership (including management time), may still be cheaper with a dedicated paid solution. For organisations with a bespoke business process, or larger organisations, the calculation may be different.

Finally / Next Steps

If you are a volunteer or a nonprofit and need occasional help, your local Trailblazer community is definitely around and keen to support you. Moreover, there are now more virtual support offerings than there were before Covid. Some that come to mind are:

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