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VolunteerToday.com~~ The Electronic Gazette for Volunteerism


Find tips to oversee the work of volunteers and practical suggestions to supervise them. Everything from ideas to help you work more efficiently to the latest in research on keeping volunteers happy and productive.

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~December 2003~ Topics

“The Day All the Volunteers Left”

“The Day All the Volunteers Left,” is a stirring article in the Journal of Volunteer Administration Volume 21, No. 3, 2003, on how volunteers were banished from Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children in the wake of the SARS scare. Suzanne Lawson, Director of Volunteer Resources recounts, with professional aplomb, the need to ban visitors, volunteers, and in some cases parents to contain the spread of a virus. She tells of efforts to explain the situation to volunteers and keeping people engaged and informed over a period of weeks. What ensued was a revision of “business-as-usual” to one where attorneys and risk management specialist helped plan for the re-entry of volunteers to the hospital.

Lawson lists, “Lessons learned: flexibility, get back to the basics of managing volunteers, recruit new types of volunteers, work as a team, know as much as possible about risk management, organize clear and honest communication, and remember that managing volunteers is always a 'work in progress'.”

Here are some more tips on coping with a crisis:

Find a model
Look to other organizations in the community who have weathered the storm of crisis, and the more the organization is like your organization the better. Visit with them about how they managed the crisis.
Get senior management support
Taking time to plan for a potential disaster can look like wasted time and $$. It is essential that administrators or boards back the efforts to plan for a disaster, so when it comes there is a plan. For example, for decades people living in Western Washington State have been practicing earthquake drills. Elected and appointed officials have scrapped together meager funds to support drills, earthquake kits for employees, renovations to buildings, and collaborative exercises between disaster responses agencies. A big earthquake in 2001 proved how valuable that planning was. No loss of life and a quick return to the normal workday!
Get a team
The organization will likely have a team with members being responsible for certain things. The same is true for the volunteers. Is there an advisory group for the volunteer program to help plan the response in event of a disaster? Who is communicating with volunteers driving in? How do you keep morale up and not lose volunteers? Who speaks to the media representing the interests of the volunteers?
Get an off-site location
Again, the organization is likely to do this, but how do the volunteers fit in. Do they need to come in to help with off site tasks? Should volunteers come to a different location? Plan this all in advance.
Plan for different contingencies
Get a plan of action with steps spelled out for different contingencies. No access to building, access to building but only by certain people, access to building but new tasks need to done. The plan should include what is to be done and who is to do it, not by name but by title.
Revisit the plan annually
The disaster plan needs to be revisited at least once a year by the advisory team and up-dated with the overall organization’s plan in mind.

Track Your Progress

Do your volunteers know of the progress being made in your organization? Is it clients served? Children tutored? Reading scores improved? Meals delivered? Court cases settled? Homes for lost cats? Concert attendance? What are the measures and what are you doing with the numbers? Volunteers are encouraged by the knowledge they are part of a bigger project than their individual job. Here are some tips to tracking and reporting progress.

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  • Identify the things to be measured. Make a list of all the things that can be measured and who is the “keeper” of those numbers. Ask volunteers to tell you what they know about what is being measured. They are likely to have a good view of this.
  • Ask for information on the things being measured. Get in the information loop on all the things being measured in the organization that are impacted by volunteers. Get a volunteer statistician. This is a great virtual volunteer job. Check out the confidentiality issues before tackling this.
  • Determine a means to communicate. Giving volunteers information on progress can be deadly dull or enlightening. Determine ways to present information in an effective manner. For example, one nonprofit presented a monthly “program budget.” It included all types of progress information, just as if it were the financial budget. Volunteers came to expect getting it.
  • Review the system. It is essential to check information gathering and disseminating systems periodically to make sure you are gathering the right information and sending out what is of interest to the volunteers.

Managing the Whiner

Every volunteer program has a whiner or complainer in its midst. Sometimes there is more than one. Here are tips to address the problem.

  1. Determine the source of the complaint. Why is the volunteer unhappy? Set up a meeting and really listen without trying to defend. Get facts or feelings as to why the individual is unhappy.
  2. Seek the truth. Determine if the complaint is valid. Does it have even the germ of truth for the volunteer? Get information from others closely connected to the situation.
  3. Meet privately with the individual. This is not time to agree with the complainer. Just share facts, make the person feel that you have listened and done something about what they have said. Emphasize that you are on their side, but this is the situation. Try to get the person to suggest solutions to the problem.
  4. If it seems appropriate, you can also share with them the impact of the complaining on other volunteers or clients. And ask if they can help you to dispel bad feelings by sharing the positive information you have gathered. Make them an ally.

Canadian Governance—Do and Don’t

Canada has about 175,000 registered nonprofit organizations. A recent research study by Mel Gill, at the Institute on Governance, Ottawa, Ontario surveyed 20 nonprofits on the quality of governance. There was a survey and then analysis of supporting documentation. Organizations included in the study were from education, health, community/health service, and crown agency sectors. Organizational size ran from a small rural Lions Club to a pan-Canadian study of school board governance. Media budget size was $3 million. Here's a sample of what was found.

Major concerns of boards
Signs of Trouble
Keys to Success
Director liability issues/insurance Excessive turnover of CEO Strong board and staff leadership
Financial viability Difficulty recruiting credible board members Role clarity
Business practices while running a human service program Rapid depletion of reserve funds Strong agreement of key stakeholders on the values, mission, objectives of the organization
Succession planning for board and staff Role confusion between staff and board Respect for organizational norms
Roles of board and senior management Low meeting attendance Good board development
Communication with stakeholders Factionalism Regular assessment of CEO and board

Decision deadlock High levels of trust

Poor communication with funders

This and much more is in the final report. For more information on the report contact, Mel Gill at Synergy Associates, mel.gill@synergyassociates.ca or mel.gill@rogers.com.


Washington State University offers a Volunteer Management Certification Program through the Internet. Individuals around the world can earn a certificate in managing or coordinating volunteers, without leaving home. For more information, visit Volunteer Today's Portal site, Internet Resources. Look for the Washington State University listing. There is a hot link to their Web site.

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