What comes to mind when you hear the word “volunteer”? The English dictionary defines a volunteer as “somebody who works for nothing.” Yet, today, we know that in order for someone to offer his/her time and talents amidst other daily demands, volunteers need to know how their energies support the organization’s cause, mission and values. Volunteers also want to know how their service will improve and enhance the community.

In order to recruit, retain and sustain an engaged volunteer team, it is essential that volunteer managers know not only what motivates their volunteers, but also what skills they bring to the organization and how those skills can move the organization forward.

Today’s volunteer managers are talent and project managers. To effectively engage skilled volunteers, organizations have to be sensitive to their own strengths and weaknesses as well as open to new ideas and processes. Harnessing the energies and talents of capable volunteers means learning about their backgrounds, strengths and experiences so that they can be integrated into an organization’s mission and vision.

Several years ago a young women volunteered for an organization to inventory and catalogue videos — a straightforward, time-limited project. During the process, it was discovered that she had a Master of Library Science degree and was extremely familiar with the publishing business. With an anniversary year fast approaching, the organization wished to utilize these talents for the publication of an anthology.

The volunteer manager enticed the volunteer with the prospect of being associated with a poetry collection by acclaimed poets and writers, a project that would enhance her résumé. A two-week volunteer became a two-year volunteer who verified copyrights, assembled paperwork, proofed and produced a lasting manuscript.

The experience allowed the volunteer to share her best skills in an area of interest in a timely fashion with measureable results. Viewed as an integral staff member, she remains an annual reviewer of student manuscripts and a financial contributor to the organization.

Volunteers serve as animal and art advocates, board members, environmentalists, mentors and human rights activists, in addition to feeding, clothing and sheltering people in need.

According to Maryland’s Office of the Attorney General, there are 32,000 nonprofit organizations in the state. The corporation for National and Community Service recently reported that 1.25 million volunteers in Maryland provided approximately 145.4 million hours of service with an estimated value of $3.5 billion. In Maryland, a full-time equivalent volunteer (40 hours per week per 50 weeks annually) translates to more than $52,000 a year (theindependentsector.org values a volunteer hour in Maryland at $26.41).

In today’s economy, nonprofits are in greater competition for not only a volunteer’s time, but his or her skill sets. In order to enlist the services of volunteers and capitalize on their skills, organizations would do well to invest in a volunteer relationship and management structure that values time and abilities by spending as much time retaining as recruiting volunteers. Consider the rate of return.

Pamela Simonson is executive director of the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County (VolunteerHoward.org), a program of the Columbia Association. She can be reached at 410-715-3179 or [email protected].