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Related articles and books:

How do Teeth Show a Horse's Age?” Desmond Morris, Horse Watching as posted on Jaclyn’s World of Horses

Links with great information for running volunteer organizations:

Association for Volunteer Administration and Volunteer Managers

Canada’s Charity Village

Cyber Volunteer Program Managers

Service Leader

International Year of Volunteers

Energize Inc.

Sites to advertise and find volunteer positions

Impact Online


NPower Technology Volunteer Match

Eco Volunteer

Imagine! You pick up the last card dealt and you find a Queen of Spades and four aces. You bet a handsome but conservative amount so as not to tip off your good hand. As you look at your opponents over your four aces through the smoke filled air, you see each player fold in turn. Darn! Seems your bet was more handsome than conservative. Then your eyes stop on the less-than-respectable poker player directly across the table. Holding his neatly spaced cards in one hand and twisting the end of his handlebar mustache with the other, he says, pushing his remaining bills and coins into the pot, “I’ll see your bid with the last of my money plus that there young stallion hitched to the post outside.”

You’re one for keen observation though. You think it’s likely this swindler’s horse is well past his prime, falling short of matching your bet. You know you will win the hand getting the pot, horse, and all. Do you now...

Back your chair out in one smooth motion and swagger with confidence through the swinging saloon doors to take a good long look at the horse’s mouth to see if he is an acceptable match to your bet?


Smile, fanning your cards out on the table, raking in your winnings and order another sarsaparilla for the trail?

If you swagger outside, press this button

If you savor your winnings and your sarsaparilla, press this button

Sorry Partner, the game’s over.

You walk through the swinging saloon doors outside for a good, long look at the horse’s mouth before showing your hand. You can see from his teeth your hunch is right; he has a full set of adult teeth all worn to a point and you estimate his age to be 15 years or moreno match for your bid. While you’re examining the stallion, your handlebar mustached opponent grabs the pot, causes a commotion by turning the table over on your fellow poker players, and bursts through the swinging saloon doors. A shot is heard. You stumble through the saloon door, dropping like a sack of potatoes on the threshold with a bit of buckshot in your right shoulder as the no-good, cheating varmint gallops away.

If you would like to rethink your choice by savoring your winnings, a sarsaparilla and finding out what the heck poker, gift-horses, and buckshot have to do with not-for-profits and human capitol, press this button

Smart thinkin’ partner! Enjoy your sarsaparilla while it’s cold and frosty.

It’s obvious, in addition to your poker skills, you know a thing or two about horses. A walk through the swinging saloon doors outside for a good, long look at the horse’s mouth before showing your hand would have gotten you a bit of well placed buckshot in the back. As you know, it has long been the practice of good horsemen to examine a horse’s mouth, noting the types of teeth and their wear, to determine if the horse has a lot of life left in him or is old and worn-out.

Since most of us don’t hang out in saloons or gallop off into the night with our poker winnings weighing down our saddle bags, it’s time for this cow poke to explain what the heck poker, gift-horses, and buckshot have to do with not-for-profits and human capitol! After a candid conversation with two not-for-profit executives, to my amazement, it is easy to understand how volunteer human capitol and gift-horses have a lot in common. Take a short mosey with me through this article to find out why, along with some thoughts on how to take a little buckshot without dropping like a sack of potatoes on the threshold of the saloon’s swinging doors. Or, keep reading if you are in town to rustle up a few volunteers or hire a few good for-profit wranglers.

Imagining the not-for-profit world for most of us is just as much a stretch as imagining ourselves in a smoky, Wild West saloon winning at a hand of poker. This is beyond fanciful; it’s dad gum outrageous! Most of us would be dumb struck if asked to run a whole organization on less money than the average American household while organizing a bunch of volunteers to keep all our fences mended and cattle grazing. So you won’t be plumb lost, I’ll start out by corralling a few of the best facts to give you a good idea of what kind of invaluable volunteers not-for-profits need to move them dogies down the trail.

For many not-for-profit organizations, volunteer human capitol keeps them in business. Not-for-profits realize that dedicated, knowledgeable volunteers are not just any old cow poke you can rustle up hanging out in front of the local feed store. They are invaluable human capitol without which thei organizations could not operate. Putting it in the perspective of dollars and hours that most of us city folk talk intwo years ago the average hourly value of a volunteer’s time was $14.83 according to The National Center for Charitable Statistics. Although this is no comparison to the hourly wages of a for-profit programmer, it is almost triple the current minimum wage, demonstrating monetarily the significant value of not-for-profit volunteer staff. In 2000, St. Louis Senior Computer Training (SLSCT), an organization dedicated to low cost computer training for seniors 50 years and older, depended on one paid staff member and more than 15,000 volunteer hours to serve their students, maintain their office and two small computer labs. Quite plainly, those numbers show the organization could not accomplish its mission of improving the quality of life of older adults through computer literacy without their volunteer staff of trainers, administrators, and technologists. The SLSCT is not a maverick in its need for volunteers; in fact, as a small to midsize not-for-profit organization operating nearly entirely on volunteers, it is part of the largest not-for-profit demographic in the U.S.

Given those example statistics, it is easy to see how volunteer human capitol can be the deciding factor that makes or breaks many not-for-profit organizations. You’d think then, the organization would want to take a good long look at the “mouth” of each potential volunteer. Often though, not-for-profit organizations see potential volunteers as gift-horses, subscribe to the genteel idea of not looking a gift-volunteer in the mouth, bringing them on regardless of their commitment level, experience, skills, available time, and interest in the organization’s mission. Whoa Nelly! As a business development and performance improvement cow poke who’s been around these parts I can tell you, whether you are not-for-profit or panning for a profit of gold, not looking your gift-horse in the mouth may cause your whole organization to go down with hoof and mouth disease. And what they are giving down at the glue factory doesn’t exactly pay the bills…if you know what I mean.

“Great,” you say, “Look gift-horses in the mouth, but umm, what about the buckshot.” The buckshot includes  turning away volunteers you desperately need, or not having the time to look gift-horses in the mouth, or a hundred other types of buckshot. Right, I understand and just like there were no bulletproof vests in the gun slinging days of the Wild West, there’s no sure-fire remedy to eliminate buckshot from today’s not-for-profit world. But, there are a few darn good tricks you can put up your sleeves when you’re deciding on whether to gamble on that gift-horse.

1.      Know what you need before the gift-horse, potential volunteer arrives.
Ranchers don’t go out and buy horses because they’re cute. They have a plan in mind of how the horse they buy will impact their ranch, what it will take to keep it healthy, and when and how the horse can contribute to the bottom line. How will you know when a good volunteer shows up on your doorstep, if you don’t know what type of work you need done and what will be needed to facilitate that work? In for-profit terms, make a workforce plan.
2.       Know what breed of gift-horse, type of volunteer, you need for each role in your workforce plan.
A green broke bronco would not make a good, sturdy plow horsenor would a fast talking, limited attention span, short on patience teenager make the best computer trainer for senior adults, but she might make a great activities leader at a children’s day camp. How will you know when a good volunteer, who fits in your workforce plan, shows up on your door step if you haven’t thought about what skills and characteristics are needed to fill each role in your workforce plan? In for-profit terms, write role descriptions.
3.      Know where and how to round-up gift-horses for your organization.
If the gift-horses aren’t showing up on your doorstep, you may need to go out and round them up yourself. Now that you know exactly what you need done and what type of volunteer can fill the role, the job of finding volunteers should be easier. A few things to think about:

a)   What can you offer a potential volunteer; there are lots of volunteer organizations working on worthwhile missions competing for their time. If you talk to a potential volunteer or have a story printed or run an ad make sure you emphasize what your organization can do for the volunteer and not the other way around. How does your organization stand out from the rest? In for-profit terms, what’s your employment differentiator?

b)   Where do the types of potential volunteers you want kick up their heels or rest their heads? Go there, through an ad or story in the community paper or web site, a press release that catches the attention of a media geared to the likes of your type of volunteer, speak at their monthly luncheon, attend their event, drop in at their favorite restaurant, club, events, wherever your demographic might be. How can you expect to have potential volunteers to choose from if they don’t know about your organization? In for-profit terms, advertise your employment opportunity where your demographic lives.

c)  Know the types of volunteers that neighbor not-for-profit organizations are looking for and make sure they know what type of volunteers you need. A good referral will help you both and have the volunteer talking about two great organizations all over town. How can you make the most of all your volunteer search time? In for-profit terms, leverage every opportunity.

d)  Listen for the desires and objections of would-be volunteers. What would-be volunteers want and don’t like can help you revise your message, programs, and volunteer opportunities in ways that help them grow and feed your bottom line. How can you make your opportunity appealing to would-be volunteers if you don’t know what they want? In for-profit terms, talk to your employees to keep perfecting your employment pitch.

e)  Keep your current volunteers knowledgeable about your organizational needs and encourage your volunteers to whinny, attracting new gift-horses and clients. How can you make the most of all your volunteer staff connections? In for-profit terms, leverage every opportunity to involve employees in building your organization.
4.     Know how to examine your gift-horses’ mouth to see if they can fill a role in your workforce plan. Once you have a potential volunteer’s attention, share your workforce plan and role description with them. Show your poker hand when the volunteer offers the bid of their time, before investigating them. Ask if any of your roles interest them or if they can think of a role, not yet in your workforce plan, that would be of interest to them. You might be surprised and reap rewards from their answer. How can a volunteer tell you where they can help your organization if they don’t know what you need? In for-profit terms, if you are not using their skills and fostering the building of the skills you need you are wasting human capitol.
5.      Know how to politely re-gift your gift-horse if they can’t fill a role in your workforce plan.
If you or the potential volunteer cannot see a fit, ask additional exploratory questions about what the potential volunteer is looking for and use your understanding of other neighborhood not-for-profits to recommend opportunities outside your organization. Offer to make a call to an organization that interests themyou never know, they might pick up a skill you need at your neighbor’s organization and reward your kindness by coming back to your organization at a later date. Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t see a fit at this time but you will keep their information on file. This could save you from some serious buckshot. How can you make the most of all your volunteer search time? In for-profit terms, leverage every opportunity.
6.    Know how to keep your gift-horse happy, productive, and contributing to your bottom line. How can you make the most of your gift-horses and keep them on your ranch? In for-profit terms, education stops frustration and kills turnover.

a)  Have the role descriptions, core procedures, and basic information on your organization written out for all new volunteers to read and be able to refer to as they learn the ropes.

b)  Plan for volunteer training either through an orientation, a manual, formal training, or one-on-one mentoring to help your new volunteers learn their role and how the organization works on a practical, experienced based level. Even the best volunteers need instruction on how your organization works. Frustration, of many forms, leads to turnover. Don’t frustrate your new volunteers by not being prepared for them to work.

c)  Volunteer’s interests and skills change and grow over time. Stay tapped into their desires and interests through discussion groups, surveys, one-to-one chats to learn if you are using their growing skills effectively, and if they have new ideas that would help your organization.

d) Thank you’s go a long way! Maybe you cannot fund an appreciation dinner, but a verbal thank you with a sincere smile might be all they wanted anyway. People volunteer for all sorts of reasons, but everyone wants to feel their efforts count and they are appreciated.

e) Try to design a volunteer program that fosters growth, mentoring, and appreciation.
7.     Think out of the corral! If you don’t have time for all of this, don’t do it; just take time to find the one volunteer who can find the volunteers who have the time to do the things you need. Think about partnering with other not-for-profits to hire or find a volunteer coordinator who finds the right volunteers or a partnership manager to make valuable partnerships with for-profit organizations.

Now you know what poker, gift-horses and buckshot have to do with an adventure in the Wild West of not-for-profit volunteer human capitol. Know when to hold your cards close to your vest and when to show them, keep a poker face, be sure to look your gift-horses in the mouth, and watch out for that buckshotyou never know who will be coming through that swinging door!

Well I think I‘ll sit here a spell. I won a little in the last hand, so I think I’ll have another sarsaparilla, talk about the weather a little and find out when the stagecoach from Dry Gulch is due in. Happy trails to you!

Kellee K. Sikes is a contributing editor for LiNE Zine and Principal of Pioneer Technologies, a consulting company that helps for-profits and not-for-profits find gift-horses, hired wranglers, and happy trails through business development, performance improvement, and project management. Although she’s ridden horses and poked a few cows on her grandpa’s farm in Texas, these days Sikes only wrangles technology while helping clients get successfully duded up from her base in St. Louis, Missouri. Tell her how you play your poker hand at



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