April is National Volunteer Month, but it seems that no one cares. Why is that?

Why do most organizations that use volunteers condense this entire month into a one-night banquet with an almost inedible dinner and a few thanks and awards?

I know why. It’s because we don’t really understand the impact volunteers have within our facilities and communities. We see them as cute little old retired folks who give their time sporadically because they are lonely and bored. I’m here to tell you: That perception couldn’t be farther from the truth.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 77 million Americans volunteered in 2017, giving an estimated $184 billion in service to their communities. That’s a huge number and one we should be celebrating with our volunteers not only during volunteer week and month but all year long.

The idea that volunteers are just lonely, old retired people is doing a disservice to volunteer programs everywhere. It hinders our ability to see them for who they truly are, such as high school students yearning to make a difference in their communities and millennials who are giving back in unprecedented numbers. Senior volunteers are retired teachers, nurses, doctors, attorneys, engineers and entrepreneurs who are willing to give your organization their time, talents and expertise FOR FREE.

Skilled nursing facilities have had to adapt and change over the years because that’s the nature of healthcare. Things change on what seems like a daily basis, but for some reason, the volunteer responsibilities have stayed the same. That old saying comes to mind, “if it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it!” But that can also be translated into the most destructive phrase in business, “We’ve always done it this way.”

Just because something has worked for 20 years doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon. I’m not saying you have to scrap your entire volunteer program at your facility and start from scratch. To the contrary, small changes over time can transform your facility in ways that will impact patient and employee satisfaction.

Making a list of all recent changes, challenges and gaps in care can start the volunteer conversation. By asking one simple question: “If I had another set of hands, what would I have them do?” Then, ask yourself if that extra set of hands could be a volunteer. Obviously there has to be boundaries as volunteers can’t perform clinical tasks but you will be surprised at what your already existing volunteer team is willing to do. Plug your most passionate and flexible volunteers into these new responsibilities and watch what happens. I promise that you will be pleasantly surprised at the outcomes, and be inspired to create new and innovative assignments that makes everyone’s lives easier.

If we continue to perpetuate this antiquated view of volunteers, programs and facilities will never flourish. Innovation, engagement and creativity will die and we will forever be known as the generation that allowed the true impact of our volunteers to be forgotten. But how do we change this idea that has been accepted for decades? How do we convince our staff, our administrators and our C-Level executives to care about volunteers on a deeper level? Here’s how: We rephrase the narrative and we describe volunteers exactly as they are. People willing to lend their time, talents and expertise for free.

If I told you that you could invest a one-time $100,000 and receive $1 million in return, you would jump at the chance, right? That’s exactly what your volunteer program is capable of, except your investment is actually zero dollars and only your support, encouragement and recognition is required.

By allowing volunteer managers and their team of volunteer staff to challenge the status quo, create new programs that have never been done before and giving them the tools to execute their vision, your facility will experience volunteer ROI like you’ve never seen before. It’s hard to let go of the old school perception of volunteers. It’s hard to imagine the possibilities of a volunteer program that hasn’t changed in 50 years; but trust me when I say that breaking that barrier and allowing yourself to see what volunteers are truly capable of will reap rewards you never thought possible.

Thank your volunteers. Pick their brains. Ask for ideas. Listen to their concerns. You might find that they know more about your organization than you. Utilize them as strategic partners and give them the freedom to suggest future plans and ideas that just might move your organization forward in ways that only a volunteer could conceive.

Joni Reed is the author of The Billion Dollar Miracle: Endless free labor, a cutting edge patient experience and the ultimate solution to our rising healthcare costs.