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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.

~ October 2005 ~ Topics

Quick Tips on Management and Supervision
  • Nametag tip. If you wear a nametag, put it on your right shoulder. A nametag on the left is hard to see when shaking hands.
  • Perfectionism as danger. Many routine tasks do not need to be done perfectly. As you work on something ask yourself if the amount of time you are spending to "get it just right" is worth the time. Is it keeping you from bigger and more important projects? Is perfection really necessary or would "O.K." be good enough?
  • The dress code. Most organizations do not have a dress code, but you can help volunteers be more comfortable by saying things like, "The people in the organization usually dress _________." Could save embarrassment for the volunteer.
  • Catch them at the phone. The best time to reach people in their office is between 10:00 and 11:30 a.m.
  • Blunt negative responses. It is easy to get discouraged when you receive negative responses to ideas. One way to respond is to offer examples of past successes and demonstrate that alternatives are worth trying. "I am convinced that we haven't tried everything yet."
  • Avoid telephone tag. Leave very specific telephone messages. "I will be in my office from 9:00 a.m.– 10:30 and need to know if you can speak to our volunteer group on December 12. You can call or email me at ____________."
  • Greetings and Salutations in Email. Email is a flat form of communication. Personalize it and make it more memorable with a greeting-persons name, or if to a group ("team ___"). The salutation at the end is what the person will remember most, so write strong endings to emails.
  • Never start training with short cuts. Begin with the basics when training volunteers. There are short cuts to everything, but the first training is not the place to start with those short cuts. Teach people the basics, so they understand the system. Later the volunteer can learn your short cuts or make up their own.
  • Make "no" okay. It is never pleasant telling a staff member or a volunteer no, but sometimes it is necessary. Never reject the person, always the task. "I cannot do X."Never, "I can't help you."

Interested in more information? Check out our online bookstore for Secrets of Leadership by Rick Lynch & Sue Vineyard and Risk Management: Strategies for Managing Volunteer Programs by Sarah Henson and Rick Lynch.

Details for Secrets of Leadership Book Details for Risk Management Book

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Coaching Volunteers

In some organizations and programs, volunteers are taking on more and more responsibility, especially for other volunteers. Here are some tips to help in coaching volunteers who have significant responsibilities.

Know the volunteers. Know something about people outside of the work environment and the stresses and strains that can cause. It helps build rapport and knowledge of what is possible for them and what might be too much.
Listen to the volunteers. Volunteers often see the organization from the ground up. Their ideas can be of value in organizing new initiatives. Practice active listening, it can create a common ground.
Ask questions. Stop telling. Ask someone how he/she assesses his or her work. Ask how a job could be done differently. Lectures did not work in high school and they do not work well with adults. Probing questions are a good way to get to the bottom of something.
Be confident and congenial. The manager needs to act like he/she knows what is going on and worthy of respect. Be friendly, avoiding the doubts you might have about getting the job done.
Get feedback. Ask people to tell you how to improve the situation. Get ideas for new projects or programs.
Use volunteer ideas. When volunteers suggest new things, put them into place as soon as possible and give them credit. Keep the emphasis on how good ideas from everyone creates great programs.

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Writing Surveys

Managers of volunteer programs frequently have the need to survey the volunteers. Follow up to training, assessing an event, seeking information on a program are common places where surveys are used. The Internet has made life easier in this area.

SurveyMonkey (a Web-based survey site) allows people to post surveys of 10 questions or less for free. The respondents plug in answers and the manager of volunteers can find a "stay-at-home" volunteer with a good computer to download the responses and enter them in a database for analysis. It is important to have the same survey available for those without computer access.

The sophistication of the survey tool used can be compromised by poor questions. Here is a short primer on writing good survey questions.

1. Ask only essential questions. If you really are not going to use the response, then do not ask the question.

2. Avoid questions that are too general.

"Did you enjoy our orientation and tour?"
One person liked the tour, but not orientation? Someone else liked the reverse. How will you know what each person is saying if they respond "No."

3. Open ended questions can mean fewer respondents. Volunteers have busy lives and struggling through questions where they have to hand write long answers is unlikely. The individual throws the survey away or never completes it on line. Better to reduce the number of open-ended questions. If the open-ended question allows for a yes or no response, what have you learned if the respondent simply checks no and moves on? Nothing.

"Are you in favor of us repeating this event?" Yes ____ No ____
Please indicate why. __________________________________

4. Use questions to put people in subgroups for the purpose of analysis.

"Do you plan to volunteer for this event next year?"
Yes ____ No ___

This question allows you to separate respondents between returnees and those who are not coming back.

5. Wording makes a difference in responses. Personal or impersonal wording can make a difference in how people respond. And both are appropriate, depending on the purpose of the question.

"To what extent are supplies and resources for clients satisfactory?"
___a. Very satisfactory
___b. Satisfactory
___c. No opinion
___d. Unsatisfactory
___e. Very unsatisfactory

This question allows the respondent to consider everyone else's opinion, including his/her own. They may respond based on what other volunteers or staff say.

"To what extent do you think supplies and resources for clients are satisfactory?"
___a. Very satisfactory
___b. Satisfactory
___c. No opinion
___d. Unsatisfactory
___e. Very unsatisfactory

The second question speaks directly to the person and asks his/her opinion.

6. Always field test questions. People are needed to take the survey before it goes public. Many question errors can be caught through a simple field test of five or six people.


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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