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VolunteerToday.com ~~ The Electronic Gazette for Volunteerism


Visit this page for ideas, suggestions and hints to build recruitment capacity.

~ June 2003 ~Topics
One Minute Answer Book

NEW at our online bookstore: ONE MINUTE ANSWER TO VOLUNTEER MANAGEMENT QUESTIONS: A PRACTICAL APPROACH by Mary Kay Hood. Written especially for the beginner, this book provides a quick reference for the practical aspects of managing a volunteer program.Recruiting & Retention book Image One Minute Answer Book
Screening: More than Its Cracked Up To Be

Screening volunteers is more than chatting with someone interested in working with your organization. Screening is a process of helping the prospective volunteer make the right choice and the organization or agency make the right choice. Here are basic elements of screening—in brief.

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Position development
Any volunteer position should come from a need expressed by paid staff or volunteers working on a project. “Make-work” can be deadly in a volunteer program. The vast majority of people who volunteer want to know the work they are doing contribute, to the mission and goals of the organization or group.
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Position description
Knowing the duties, requirements, qualifications, time commitment, training needed can help the volunteer decide if this is the right place for his/her talents. It is also the framework in which the organization assesses the suitability of a person to have a successful volunteer experience.
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These forms gather general information about a person; name, address, contact information, emergency numbers, and the like. It can also provide employment, educational, and volunteer history to get a glimpse into the types of things the person enjoys doing. It might also include release information on criminal history and provide references.
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Talking to people who know someone can provide information to an organization on the aptitude a volunteer might have for a particular position. Questions should be standardized and relate directly to the task the volunteer will carry out. Example: “In this position, (name), will be working with confidential information that cannot be shared, even with other staff members. Do you have knowledge of a time when (name) was entrusted with confidential information? If yes, how did they handle the responsibility? Would you trust them with your confidential information? Why or why not?”
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Criminal Record Background Checks
Some states and provinces allow volunteer organizations to access criminal database histories to screen out anyone unsuitable to working with children or vulnerable populations. Knowing what a volunteer does, through job development and position descriptions, can indicate whether this type of checking is necessary. Cost is sometimes a factor in doing this, but to keep clients safe the money needs to be found to conduct such screening mechanisms.
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When is an interview an interview? The interview is really a series of conversation a representative of the organization has with a prospective volunteer. Initially it might be simply chatting about duties, time requirements, and the person’s experience. As the individual progresses through the process the “interviewing” gets more serious. The most challenging positions are one’s where the interviewing is standardized, conducted by more than one person, and helps the volunteer determine if this is really the position for them.

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Trends: Past to Present

Record Time ImageAmerican Demographics magazine has been predicting trends since its inception. It has avoided the “fads” and gone for the fundamental changes in American culture that impact daily life. Here are some trends they predicted in the past that continue in 2003 and likely into the future.

The Power of Women:
  • Women express satisfaction and richness in the life of work outside the family home. (1979)
  • The power structure in the family home is changed as women and men are equalized. (1980)
  • Shifting attitudes have allowed women to finance businesses in large numbers.
  • In the 1980s there were 700,000 women owned businesses, today there are 5 million.
  • The increase in the number of minorities has enhanced their influence in political and consumer arenas. (1979)
  • Hispanics are the largest single minority group in the US, 35.3 million versus 34.7 African-Americans.
Health Care Consumption:
  • Better education has brought better informed consumers of health care. (1986)
  • Wellness clinics will increase.
  • Alternative treatments and herbal remedies will increase. (1993)
  • More than half of Americans are and continue to be overweight. (1981)
Rising Demand for Adult Education:
  • Education level impacts household income and consumer behavior favorably. (1988)
  • Demand for adult education continues at a break neck pace.
  • The more educated people want still more education.

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Risk Management for Volunteer Programs - An Interview with Linda Graff, Author of "Better Safe. . .Risk Management in Volunteer Programs and Community Service" conducted by Nancy Macduff

Risk management has always been part of developing positions for volunteers. Linda Graff has written a new resource book that helps demystify the process, helps volunteer programs see what they are already doing, and provides oodles of resources to be better at it. The following is a “conversation” with Linda on this important skill, conducted by Nancy Macduff of Volunteer Today. Linda offers four suggestions for dealing with risk management and much, much more. This book is availble through the Volunteer Today online bookstore. Better Safe Book Image Better Safe Book Image

The interview is fairly lengthy, so we're providing shortcuts to each of the questions if you prefer to jump around instead of reading straight through.

Question 1 - Why is risk management important to the management of volunteers?
Question 2 - What would would be the key points you would give to those considering setting up a risk management process?
Question 3 - How can your book help manage risks?

Question 1 - Nancy: Linda, can you tell us why risk management is important to the management of volunteers?

Linda: Risk management is not just an important part of the management of volunteers, I would contend that it has become an indispensable aspect of volunteer program management.

First, while there are some organizations that have been involving volunteers in meaningful and demanding positions for many years and even decades, there has been a pervasive trend over the last decade in North America to rely ever more heavily on volunteers to do what we would consider to be “the real work” of the organization.

If you look back at the volunteer management literature of the 1970s and early 1980s, you find many discussions of the questions “Who should do what work?” and “How do we distinguish work of paid staff from work the volunteers might be invited to do?”

The answer in the literature was consistently of this nature: volunteers supplement, they never supplant, the work of paid staff.

That particular notion now bears no resemblance to the 21st century reality in the volunteer movement.

Volunteers have been invited out of the back rooms and onto the front lines of service delivery throughout the sector. They often stand shoulder to shoulder with paid staff delivering services to patients, clients, residents, patrons, students, consumers, or whatever other label is used to describe the recipient of the service. Volunteer work is no longer confined to the “extras.” It’s not just the “fluff.” Volunteer work has moved from being “nice” to being “necessary.”

Ask any assembled group of managers of volunteer what would happen if their volunteers went on strike for a week and the greatest majority would blanche and confirm immediately that the absence of volunteers would have a significant impact on their agencies’ ability to achieve their mission.Beans Tower Image

So, volunteers are increasingly doing the real work. The “real” is increasingly risky. It’s a simple equation. The greater the face-to-face connection between volunteers and service recipients, the greater the risk. The greater the complexity, sophistication, responsibility of the work being done by volunteers, the greater the risk. When volunteers were confined to envelope stuffing and phone tree work, risks were minimal and risk management largely unnecessary. Now that we have volunteers in the emergency rooms of hospitals, responding to victims and their families at the scenes of crimes and accidents, walking “the beat” shoulder to shoulder with police officers in community policing programs, implementing search and rescue programs in mountains, wilderness, and winter storm condition ... when we have volunteers working at the bedsides of dying patients in volunteer-based hospice programs across the continent, handling priceless artifacts in museums, picking up and tending to stray animals on urban streets, etc. The examples are quite literally endless of where we are engaging volunteers in service.

As the riskiness of the work increases, so too does the need for organizations to identify and manage the risks introduced through volunteer involvement. It is not only poor management, I believe it is actually unethical to place volunteers in positions of responsibility without conducting a risk assessment and putting into place whatever risk management controls the situation warrants to save volunteers, consumers, other staff, and the agency from harm. We do it for paid staff. Why would we not do it for volunteers? Do we believe they deserve less from us?

If you think about it, the fact that volunteers are not paid a wage, are often not covered by the health and safety protocols typically in place for paid staff, are not likely to have any form of worker’s compensation insurance should they be injured and unable to earn their living, and sometimes are not even explicitly covered by organizations’ insurance policies ... we put little to none of the usually supports and safety nets around volunteers, we ask them to work for no money, and we don’t even bother to conduct an assessment of where they might be in greatest peril. Often, if an organization has thought about it at all, what they have most likely done is developed a waiver for the volunteer to sign absolving the organization from any liability in the event that the volunteer is injured through their volunteer work. Not only do we not put the appropriate safety mechanisms in place, we try to remove the only redress that a volunteer might still have available to them in the event that something does go wrong!

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Question 2 - Nancy: If you had to provide two or three key points to those considering setting up a risk management process for their program, what would you tell them?

Linda: Risk management in volunteer programs and community service must start first with an organizational consciousness in the following order:

  1. volunteers are involved in our organization

  2. the work that volunteers do is important work and volunteers are an important part of our human resources team

  3. we have an ethical obligation to attend to the safety and well being of all of our employees and that applies no less to our unpaid employees

  4. the work that volunteers are engaged in involves some measure of risk to, for example, volunteers themselves, the people volunteers work with, paid staff, and the organization itself

  5. preventing risks from materializing into real harm through the introduction of management and control functions is a much less costly, much more prudent, and much more ethical approach to the existence of risks than the typical knee-jerk reaction of many organizations which is to ignore prevention and go immediately to insurance and other “cover your butt” strategies like waivers and hold-harmless agreements.

Once an organization recognizes that risks exist and that simple, inexpensive, mostly common sense strategies can have a huge results in risk reduction, it becomes obvious that risk management is worth the effort and investment. Right now it’s the consciousness about risk that I think is missing in most organizations. Managers of volunteers know about the risks involved in volunteer service because they are exposed to them every day. Many have still not been able to raise awareness among their supervisors, executive directors, and boards. So that’s where I think we need to start.

The second thing I would offer is this simple truism, a line from my new book that goes like this:

“An organization cannot manage the risks it does not identify.”

Like I said, a truism. But extremely important. We need to go looking for the risks that exist in and around volunteer involvement. We need to look at the kinds of relationships we have created and the potential for abuse. We need to look not only at the potential for unsupervised access to children and other vulnerable people, but we also need to be cognizant of con men looking to develop connections with older people in order to steal or embezzle funds. We need to look at boundary breaches in relationships, the potential for needle sticks in park clean up efforts. We need to be aware that every time a volunteer gets behind the wheel of a vehicle they are undertaking a risky activity. Risk identification is critical.

Some of the risks involved in volunteer participation are the result of persons with ill-intent seeking opportunity to abuse or exploit vulnerable persons. But in reality, we see much more harm and loss created by volunteers with every good intent, but who are placed inappropriately, not trained adequately, and/or not sufficiently supported, supervised and monitored through their placements. So the third thing is to recognize that good volunteer program management is for the most part, synonymous with risk management. If you operate a well-run volunteer program – conducting thorough needs assessment, doing appropriate recruitment, having thorough screening and careful placement, and sufficient training, followed by ongoing support and supervision...with those elements in place, much of what we would otherwise call risk management will be taken care of.

Fourth, engage in a formal risk management process. There are risk management systems out there that are not difficult to implement. They are best thought of as a logical series of questions and probes that will lead the manager of volunteers to identify risks in the volunteer program and then develop strategies to reduce risks to a tolerable level. Risk management is not hard to do. Sure it takes a bit of time, but it gets integrated into all of the other things that the manager of volunteers does each day. It’s not something “added on” but, as Charles Tremper and Gwynne Kostin said a decade ago, it’s an “orientation” to everything else you do.

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Question 3 - Nancy: How can this new book help people manage risks?

Linda: "Better Safe..." is a comprehensive risk management sourcebook. It explains risk management in a simple and straightforward manner. It offers an easy four-step risk management model that leads the program manager step-by-step through risk identification and evaluation, into the identification of a wide range of risk control strategies that are typically available in each risky situation. It is written in simple language. It is crammed with hundreds of great suggestions on how to reduce risks related to all kinds of volunteer programs. It is full of checklists, hints, worksheets, and sample forms so that the reader can immediately implement the strategies it describes.

I think many managers of volunteers are all too aware of risks in the programs they operate. Indeed, it is the manager of volunteers who’s lying awake at three o’clock in the morning, worrying about “what if???” Risk management just sounds too difficult or too foreign to launch. This book demystifies risk management. Readers find comfort in the recognition that they are already engaged in a great deal of risk management every day. "Better Safe..." just helps them to be a bit more systematic about much of what they are already doing.

Beans Team Image"Better Safe..." is layed out in a very accessible way so that readers can focus on the pieces they need most at any given time. Icons in the margins point readers to tips, cautions, policy suggestions, and ideas and topics that might be of particular interest to organization management. The forms and diagnostic worksheets are meant to be put into use, so they are reproducible directly from the book. Real life case studies bring the content to life, and make the read both easy and interesting.

This book lays it all out for the manager of volunteers. The rationale, the legal context, the risk management process step-by-step, backed up with hundreds of tips and tools to put it immediately into practice. I’m a little biassed, of course, but I think this is an essential resource on a topic of great urgency to volunteer program managers or anyone who works with voluntary organizations or programs.

Linda Graff's book is availble through the Volunteer Today online bookstore. Better Safe Book Image Better Safe Book Image Recruiting Book

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Interested in more information? Check out our online bookstore for: Recruiting and Retention: A Marketing Approach, by Nancy Macduff. Recruiting & Retention book Image

Interested in assessing volunteer and staff relations in your program?

Looking for help from an expert?

Get help with one of the Volunteer Program Evaluation Series.


The Points of Light Foundation has forms available to nominate volunteers and volunteer organizations for the Daily Points of Light Award. It is designed recognize individuals and groups that demonstrate unique and innovative approaches to community volunteering and citizen action, with a strong emphasis on service focused on the goals for children and young people set by the Presidents Summit for American's Future. The award is given five days a week, excluding holidays. If you would like nomination forms, contact Crystal Hill at 202-729-8000.

By calling 1-800-VOLUNTEER in the U.S., individuals can be connected to their local volunteer center.
This is a national interactive call routing system designed to get volunteers connected to people who can help them volunteer.

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