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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.

~ March 2006 ~ Topics

Minding Your International Manners
Conflict Investigation
Pitching Your Ideas

Minding Your International Manners

Many volunteer programs deal with people, for whom the US or Canada is not their native land. Other volunteer programs send Canadians and US citizens out of the country to far-flung places. It is easy to offend, without even knowing that offense was given. Here are some gentle reminders that courtesy is a cross-cultural issues.

In Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, pointing your index finger toward yourself insults the other person.
The left hand in Muslim cultures is considered unclean. Avoid using the left hand when in a Muslim culture.
Nod your head up and down in Bulgarian and you are saying NO!
In Buddhist cultures, the head is considered sacred and you should avoid touching heads.
The American A-OK sign has a vulgar meaning in Russia, Brazil, Singapore, and Paraguay.
Crossing your ankle over your knee in Indonesia, Syria, and Thailand is considered rude.

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

Conflict Investigation

Conflict between volunteers or paid staff and volunteers does occur. The instinct is to get it solved quickly. Experts in conflict suggest the opposite. By the time the "conflict" reaches the ears of the person in charge the parties involved are looking for anything to blame on the other person. A meeting with each individual and some well-crafted questions can help you get to the bottom of the problem. And you might just discover that the "problem" has very little to do with the stated complaint. Here are some possible interview questions to get to the bottom of the problem.

How did this problem first appear?
What responsibility do you take for creating this problem?
What can you stop doing in order to improve the relationship?
If you could have a good working relationship with this person, what would it look like?
What are you willing to do to help the relationship reach that description.

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Pitching Your Ideas

People who work with volunteers have good ideas for programs and projects. The person usually "pitches" his/her ideas in person to a supervisor, administrator, or executive director in a hallway, after a meeting, or in a more formal setting. One way to increase the possibility of moving from idea to project or program is with a written proposal.

The proposal can be formal or informal, but putting it in writing makes it harder for people to ignore, requires some work on your part, and gives the receiver something they can pass up the line to those with the money and power to make it happen. Here are some tips for writing up an informal proposal:

    • Write for the reader. What will the reader care about? What's in it for them if this program or project becomes a reality? Do not assume the individual's knowledge and or support for anything. Spell it out, as if you were writing for someone outside the organization.
    • Define the need. When people work in the same organization they assume everyone else knows the extent of the needs and problems in their department or program. This is a dangerous assumption. Best to write an opening that describes in detail (and this means numbers and statistics) the level of the need. Suppose you are pitching a special class, using an outside training specialist, on customer service for staff and volunteers. The needs statement needs to specifically identify times when poor customer service impacted those served by the organization. "Our organization is embarrassed by lapses in appropriate customer relations. It makes the public think we are not focused on our mission, or at the least not interested in what we are here to do."
    • Illustrate the solution. Suggest a method to address the need and improve the situation. This is a chance to BRIEFLY outline how an activity can remedy what is an organizational issue.
    • Benefits to organization or program. List the ways in which volunteers, clients, members, patrons, or staff benefit from participation or engagement in the program or project. If possible use quantifiable measures.
    • Outline the action steps. Do not be vague about what you need from the person receiving the proposal. This is not a guessing game. Review the human and financial resources that will be needed. And suggest the time it will take from approval to implementation, not in actual dates, but ranges of time.
    • Get a trusted colleague (preferably a person from another organization) to review the written proposal and look for typos. Never hurts to get another opinion.


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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