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VT readers ask questions about volunteer management and administration. Ask Connie, an experienced volunteer manager, consultant and trainer, provides the answers for all to see.
Send questions to AskConnieP@cs.com

~2010 ~

Dear Connie:

I’m curious as to people’s thoughts on asking volunteers to sign a “contract/agreement” such as on the job description. What might be the pros and cons of this?


Dear CH:

Volunteering, by its very definition, means there is no remuneration given for the time, talents, and expertise that someone contributes to an organization.  A contract, on the other hand, implies that goods and/or services are given in exchange for something, e.g., usually money.  So, when we talk about a “volunteer contract” it can be perceived by volunteers as a contradiction in terms.  I prefer to use the term “volunteer commitment” instead.  I believe this accurately gets to the heart of what we’re seeking – a commitment from someone to abide by the organization’s policies or perform tasks described in a volunteer position description, etc. 

Problems down the road with volunteers usually result from a lack of clear understanding of the expectations, both yours and theirs.  Asking them to acknowledge in writing that they have read and understood the volunteer position description (or the organization’s policies, etc.) helps to re-enforce their commitment to the work they have agreed to do for your organization.  It raises the “psychic bar” somewhat and often compels them to ask questions about anything they don’t understand.  It’s human nature to take something more seriously when we have to “sign for it.”

So, I can’t think of any reason why a volunteer would resist acknowledging receipt of their position description or a copy of the organization’s policies.  When they realize (and I hope you will explain this to them) that the purpose is to ensure they understand the expectations of the organization, their role in meeting them, and the resources and support they will receive to accomplish them, they should realize it is in their best interest to confirm their commitment. 

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Dear Connie:

My organization is planning to begin background checks for both staff and volunteers.  What advice do you have for me as the volunteer program manager?


Dear AN:

Background checks are very much a fact of life now.  While they seem very straightforward for staff, there are some specific things to consider for volunteers:

    • What kinds of volunteer positions require a background check?
    • What is included in the volunteer's background check?
    • Is the information requested relevant to the volunteer position?
    • Who pays for the volunteer's background check?
    • Is the volunteer's background check (1) required by law? (2) required by organization policy?
    • Is a volunteer's permission required before performing a background check?
    • Do prospective volunteers have the right to dispute inaccuracies in a background check and to receive a copy of their report?
    • How is the volunteer's privacy protected – who sees the volunteer's application, where is it stored, who has access to it, will it be sold or shared with other institutions?
    • What, if any, steps are taken to safeguard the volunteer's background check report?

You may meet some resistance from long-time volunteers who will wonder why their background needs to be checked now since they’ve been volunteering for the organization for a long time.  I recommend framing this new policy as one that your organization has adopted and it is being implemented for both existing staff as well as volunteers. 

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Dear Connie:

I am updating my volunteer application.  Are there any new questions I should add?


Dear AR:

One of my clients recently updated their volunteer application and added a section that I like called “Previous Experience.”  We usually ask for any previous employment or volunteer experience, but they expanded this section by adding the following:

  • Service as a volunteer, mentor, or coach
  • Hobbies that relate to our mission
  • Drama or other public speaking or performance experience
  • Foreign language(s)
  • Experience with special needs group

For each of the above categories there is space to give a brief description, name of organization, years of service or participation, etc.  You could add categories that relate specifically to your organization and “mine” more information about potential volunteers.

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Do you have a question? Now you too can ask an expert!

Connie Pirtle, of Strategic NonProfit-Resources, has 15 years' experience in working with volunteers. She has consulted and/or trained for such organizations as the Washington National Cathedral, Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Music America, and the Association for Volunteer Administration.

Send your questions to Connie at AskConnieP@cs.com.
Connie Pirtle
Strategic Nonprofit Resources
10103 Edward Avenue * Bethesda, MD 20814 * VOICE: 301-530-8233 * FAX: 301-530-8299

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