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“So, exactly how many volunteers do we have?” The director of planned giving stopped Penny in the hallway. Penny hesitated for a moment and the director sighed. “It’s a simple question,” she said, clearly growing impatient.

Oh, but is it that simple? What should Penny say? “We have 300 volunteers.” And then the standard question from the director is, “why can’t I get just one when I need one?”

Most all organizations that utilize volunteers typically report on their numbers. But, what do the numbers mean? Recently, a CivilSociety article by David Ainsworth questioned the validity of reported volunteer numbers. He has a valid point. Do we all report numbers the same way? Or, because we have no reporting template, is there a perception that we don’t really know how many volunteers we have or that we fudge the numbers?

It can be a source of pride to claim that “we have over 1200 volunteers. “However, when a staff member requests 60 volunteers for the event next week, well, it’s not so easy. But if we think about this in terms of only numbers, then to that requesting staff member, 60 volunteers is not unreasonable. Why? Because the requested 60 is only .05% of the weighty 1200 volunteers on the books.

The pressure to report significant numbers of volunteers often stems from the notion that this important recruitment figure indicates the success of a volunteer manager’s program. But, these figures become a double-edged sword when a percentage of these volunteers are active, but temporarily unavailable. And we all know there are myriads of reasons as to why volunteers are unavailable at any given moment.

Take this request for a volunteer: Event manager Ethan requests a volunteer for a community fair. Volunteer manager Penny has 300 volunteers on the books. Why is it difficult to obtain just one volunteer for next week?

Well, because:

35 volunteers are on vacation (265)

12 volunteers are virtual and live out-of-state (253)

30 are having health issues (223)

43 volunteers work during that time (180)

17 volunteers are physically unable to help at events (163)

22 volunteers are in limbo-not returning recent messages (141)

18 volunteers are part of episodic teams only (123)

12 new volunteers-have not been mentored yet (111)

This means Penny is essentially looking for 1 volunteer out of 111, not 1 out of 300. However, Penny will look for that 1 volunteer from the 300 because she is a great manager and knows that volunteer circumstances and willingness change daily. She will email blast, use a phone tree and her social media accounts to reach all 300 of her volunteers in hopes that someone has returned from vacation, or has gotten well. Her chances, though, diminish to 1 out of 111 because 189 volunteers are in essence temporarily unavailable for this particular assignment due to the above circumstances.

How do we report then? Reporting numbers of volunteers without caveats or categories can create huge headaches or the wrong impression. A blanket number (300) is impressive but misleading. A reduced number (111) is less remarkable but more accurate. When reporting numbers of volunteers, it is advantageous to report in categories. These categories can indicate how many volunteers are currently active or temporarily inactive, how many work with clients, how many work in marketing, or how many are virtual, etc.

Penny must make it clear that she reaches out to every volunteer for requests. She must say that she is fully aware that the volunteer in the client category may just like to do an event once in a while and vice versa. And most importantly, she must make clear that her job as a volunteer manager is not about one vague number, but about how she cultivates, engages and matches each breathing human being within that vague number.

Numbers can mislead. If it looks like Penny’s recruited 50 new volunteers this year, then yay, she is doing her job. But if 61 volunteers moved or died or got sick or quit, she is now at -11 and by numbers alone, she appears to be going backwards.

One proactive idea is for Penny to create a centralized location where departments can see the ranks of her volunteer force. Perhaps she has a shared drive, or a bulletin board or newsletter that she can utilize to inform staff on the changing numbers of volunteers. Utilizing the categories that support her narrative will go a long way to educate everyone on real-time availability of the volunteers. And regularly surveying volunteers on their availability not only helps report accurately, but encourages volunteers to branch out and add other areas in which they will help.

Heck, maybe even she can include this category:

Number of on-boarded volunteers with specialized skills who have been introduced to departments, but are still awaiting an assignment from said departments. Now that would be an eye-opener, wouldn’t it?

Maybe another category could be:

Volunteers who quit because they were not being properly utilized.

Or how about this one:

Volunteers who quit because they were not treated well.

Perhaps a few of these categories peppered in might begin to light a fire under senior management to demand proper volunteer engagement from all staff, and not just the volunteer department.

When volunteer managers hesitate at being asked “how many volunteers do you have,” it’s not because they don’t know, it’s because it’s a fluid and ever changing figure. Each volunteer assignment is unique and the numbers of available volunteers are unique to that assignment.

Reporting in categories can be one method to help paint a clearer picture of how many volunteers are available.

Today. This hour. This moment.