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On this page are ideas to help you work more efficiently with volunteers. There are tips on recruiting, engaging, coordinating, and managing the work of volunteers.

~April 2014 ~


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In an organization or agency that effectively engages volunteers, the core belief is that volunteers are an integral part of all phases of the organization’s activities. Not only does this bring credibility, accuracy, diversity, skills, and community support, it also ensures that the design of tasks is aligned with workforce interests. Common purpose and commitment are a natural outcome.

Supervision is the over-seeing and monitoring of those individuals involved in the process of accomplishing a task or project. Whether the task or project is short-term or long-term, the basic components are supervision, support, and delegation.

A manager of volunteers is both administrator and supervisor.  In larger, departmentalized organization, the manager of volunteers is the trainer of those who supervise the work of volunteers.  Anyone given authority to supervise volunteers needs training.  It is risky to assume that someone who supervises paid staff has the capability to supervise unpaid staff.  Someone with rent and a car payment will tolerate poor supervision, while a volunteer might not.

So, exactly what is it that the manager of volunteers as supervisor does?two people at table

The person insures that:

1. Volunteers understand the task: they are given a clear picture of duties and responsibilities, and limitations, know to whom and for what they are accountable. They know who, what, where, when, and why.

2. Volunteers are delegated authority to do the work: they are empowered with real responsibility.

3. Volunteers are provided the tools to do the job: tools may be identified as resources, training, facilities, and equipment.

4. Volunteers are monitored with check-ins: this is giving on-going attention, encouragement, and support. Periodic phone calls or emails can often accomplish all three. Yes, phone calls, especially with volunteers over 65.  Some are tech savvy, but still like phone calls.

5. Volunteers are given feedback and evaluations: after task completion a debrief of what happened helps determine if the volunteer was satisfied with their experience, matched well with their interests and helps identify new challenges.

6. Recognition: the frequent "thank you", pats on the back, praise, and celebration.

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Irving H. Buchen, a professor at Capella University maintains that failure is not always bad.  It is a way of managing that is different from following rules of success.  He offers that every business has “downs.”  Buchen outlines five blunders that are actually ways to gain insights into how we are doing functioning now.  By understanding the blunders future mistakes can be reduced.


There is an assumption that “collapse” happens fast.

Many managers of volunteers believe there has been no warning of how the number of traditional long term serving volunteers are getting harder and harder to find.
Living in Washington State I am watching the horror of lives lost in a catastrophic mudslide.  Early television reports talked about “suddenness,” no warning.”  What is coming to light are reports by geologists as early as the late 1990s  of the instability of the soil, recommending against allowing homes in its path. 
In volunteer programs we avoid gathering numbers in detail. “No time.  What do I do with the data?  I don’t know how to analyze it.”  And so on. 
It is just that data which shows decline…..very small at first, but a steady decline until it is like the bridge collapsed.
If you want to avoid “catastrophe” pay attention.  There are ”weak signals of future problems.”  Numerical data was showing the decline of the traditional volunteer and the rise of the episodic as early as the late 1980s.  Were you watching the signals?

Fearing Predictions

Have you said, “We can’t plan two days in advance, let alone a year or two.”  Do you have an annual strategic plan for the volunteer program?
The fact is the “annual plan” is a way to prevent the catastrophe.  Planning is not prophecy, but rather “a practical application of our understanding and experience of real events, to probable outcomes.”

Mistakes small and large

Some of us remember the “new Coke.”  But for those of you who missed 1985 here is a brief review. New Coke was the reformulation of Coca-Cola introduced in 1985 by The Coca-Cola Company to replace the original formula of its flagship soft drink, Coca-Cola (also called Coke). New Coke originally had no separate name of its own, but was simply known as "the new taste of Coca-Cola" until 1992 when it was renamed Coca-Cola II.
The American public's reaction to the change was negative and the new cola was a major marketing failure. The subsequent reintroduction of Coke's original formula, re-branded as "Coca-Cola Classic", resulted in a significant gain in sales. This led to speculation that the introduction of the New Coke formula was just a marketing ploy; however the company has always claimed it was merely an attempt to replace the original product. (thank you Wikipedia)
It is important to remember that failures are in different sizes, but ignore the small ones to your own peril.  That small failure might just be a predictor of a big collapse.

Reject Comparison

As a long time trainer and consultant in the world of volunteer programs, I wish I had a quarter for every time I heard.

  • You don’t understand they are twice the size we are.
  • That is a museum volunteer program how could what they do possible apply to our animal shelter volunteer program?
  • We are apples and they are avocados.

Early in my career as an executive director at a tiny and failing nonprofit, I BEGGED to be able to go to workshops with my big city cousins, with programs twice the size.  With help from volunteers in my organization we took “big city” programs and dialed them back to fit our small rural community. 
Around me were small nonprofit who were recycling the same tired ideas and making no progress forward and dare I say slipping ever so slowly backward. 
I am tempted to brag about our 9 award winning programs and how some big city cousins were visiting us to find out what we were doing. Size was irrelevant.  What was important was seeing commonalities.

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