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On this page are ideas from strategies to help you work more efficiently to the latest in research on keeping volunteers happy and productive, as well as ideas, suggestions and hints to build volunteer recruitment capacity.

~May 2009~


             Volunteer programs and nonprofit organizations have been slammed hard by this economic downturn, similar to cousins in the for-profit world.  Resources are fewer, paid staff is smaller, donations and fundraisers are not bringing in what they did in the past.  Some volunteers are leaving to work and support families, other volunteers show up to “help” who are laid off and likely not to stay for a long time.  The challenges abound.  Here are some tips for keeping the volunteer program healthy and vibrant.

    • Convince the administration of the value of volunteer input.  If the management of an organization or a board of directors goes behind closed doors and comes out with a plan, it is likely there will be little enthusiasm for changes that are needed.  By engaging direct service and administrative volunteers in solving problems issues unseen by those at a distance from the actual daily service might be identified.  Everyone in the organization should be “on deck” to discuss how to do things differently, less costly and more efficiently.  I once attended a big conference for orchestras with volunteer programs.  I was seated at a lunch table with a representative of a volunteer association from an orchestra that was closing its doors and selling it music library (a VERY big deal in the music world).  I inquired if the individual at my lunch table was surviving this change and what was the community going to do without this wonderful cultural asset.  I had struck a nerve.  The woman told me no one had consulted the volunteers, she had no idea what was happening except what she read in the local newspaper.   She also said there were volunteers who had ideas and suggestions that could have prevented the catastrophe or helped reduce its drastic nature.  She said, “But, who are we?  Just volunteers who do the grunt work and no one listens to us.”  It is likely the management deemed board volunteers as sufficient when it came to consultation in making their decisions.  Too bad, most volunteers are donors, as well as workers.  Sometimes the volunteer corps knows more than the executive director or administrator about changes that could save services, money, or jobs.
    • Check your infrastructure.  Look at the way you organize now.  How long is the application process for the volunteer?  Could it be shortened?  What about training?  Can we get any of it in an electronic format and on the Internet?.  Get a committee to examine your ability to bring in short term or episodic volunteers to do things now done by the long-term service volunteer.  Examine everything you do to see if it can be done more efficiently and economically, with out compromising safety, confidentiality, or service.
    • Positive attention. Do not ignore the problems or issues.  Keep the mood positive and up beat.  Talk about possibilities and opportunities, not what is gone.
    • Hold information sessions: Encourage volunteers to ask questions about the state of the program or organization.  Be prepared with answers.  Do it in a positive manner and how this is an opportunity as well as a challenge.  Openness and transparency have the capacity to build loyalty to the organization and its programs.  Hiding things makes people suspicious.
    • Encourage participation.  Set up systems for volunteers to offer solutions.  Solicit help from experienced volunteers on how to do things at less cost, fewer “person” hours, or more efficiently.  Hold brown bag lunches to get ideas on how to improve, enhance, or streamline current operations.
    • Find key leaders.  Locate people among the volunteers who are opinion leaders and have influence.  Bring them onto planning teams to help plot out the strategies for dealing with financial or human “short-falls.” 
    • Identify change agents.  If the organization is undergoing change, find people who are good at helping others weather the storms of “things in a new way.”
    • Develop new programs.  Steve Jobs, of Apple Computer fame, was recently asked how his company would survive this downturn.  His response was that in the dot.com bust of a few years back the company ploughed money into research and development, bringing the world iPods and iPhones.  That philosophy can be applied to a volunteer program as well.  If staff cuts and loss of volunteers is making for problems, think how some “research and development” of the “volunteer” variety can build new and innovative programs.
    • Create middle manager volunteer positions.  No doubt the manager of volunteers is carrying a load other than just volunteer engagement.  Now is the time to learn about volunteer middle managers.  If ½ the coordinator of volunteers position’s is now in the marketing department, find a “deputy” coordinator of volunteers, who is a volunteer.  Sit down and draft a position description with that individual and give them real authority and responsibility and let everyone know the person speaks for the paid staff person.
    • Organize teams to solve problems.  Assume the organization has a big fund-raiser that raises several thousand dollars for programs every year.  In an economic downturn it is likely the event will produce less than in the past, and cost more.  Work with the planning team to go for economy measures and innovative ways to draw new people to the event.  More people, more money and its new money.  Form each group around one of those change agents or influencers.
    • Set realistic goals.  Ask the questions about “doability” all the time.  Keep people around with their heads out of the clouds in order to keep plans “real.”  But, be sure he/she is paired with someone who has those big, crazy new ideas.
    • Set time frames.  Teams need plans.  Teach them to do that, include time frames to carry out the groups work and show such things as streamlined service to clients or members, money savings, people savings, or innovative ways to address issues, be they old or new.  Get people on board with every Internet resource available; i.e., blogs, twitter, WIKIs, groups, chat rooms, etc.  Do not rely on the old forms of communication and planning.
    • Have a back up plan.  It is critical to openly address worst-case scenarios.  Create a committee that addresses the issue of no paid staff to coordinate the work of volunteers.  What happens?  Who does it?  How can it be organized?
    • Follow-up.  If teams are used, follow-up.  Check in.  This is the time to get the Internet humming.  Connect teams with the use of a blog.  Get some local tech people to set up a listserv just for teams working on different things.  Make sure everyone knows how to great a Yahoo or Google group.  Check in with volunteers to see what is needed.
    • Celebrate.  NEVER forget to celebrate and reward people for innovation, cost savings, or special service.  No expensive stuff. . .forget plaques and trophies.  Give a light bulb for a bright idea, pack of gum for sticking to a tough problem.  Take any excuse to have a party and celebrate.


Personal Strategies to Cope with the Economic Down Turn


         The economy is impacting programs, volunteer engagement, and paid staff lay-offs throughout the nonprofit and volunteer sector world.  Many nonprofits are seeing more volunteers, but fewer jobs.  There are reductions in hours and thus pay, and redeployment of staff, when others leave.  Here are some tips from a variety of sources to help weather the storm if you suspect you might be in line to be laid off.

  • No one is immune from lay-off Try not to personalize the action of the organization.  If there are lay-offs looming you might take some of this advice from experts to avoid being the person chosen first to go.
  • Go to the library or Internet and look up personal and/or organizational change.  Be familiar with the stages of change, both for how it will impact you and how your organization is impacted.  You might be able to help the organization make better decisions if you are seen as knowledgeable about the change process.
  • Take some time to reflect.  Is this what you really want to do?  Take some time to be physically active, eat in a healthy fashion, faith activities are helpful to some, and be with people who are up-beat and positive.  Maybe it is time to get more skills to move on, perhaps you are working for the wrong type of nonprofit or voluntary program, consider the future the way you would like it.  See if you cannot get there with some planning and experience or schooling.  This can happen even before an impending lay-off.
  • Exceed expectations for your work.  When times are tough and jobs are on the line it is easy to get discouraged about doing the work that you might not be around to see to fruition.  Try to stay focused on work and if leaving is the option, be the best employee you can be for the time remaining.  It will make you stand out from others who give up and work less.  Do your “regular job” extremely well- exceed job performance goals, beat deadlines, produce very high quality work, make your supervisor look good. Once you’ve achieved that- ask for more work. Offer to help your peers with their projects. Ask to be part of cross-functional teams.
  • Do not try to hide your lay-off.  If you apply for a job at another organization, talk candidly about the lay-off and why a passion for the mission of the new organization brought you to apply for the job.
  • Create a personal plan.  Ask about severance, career counseling, help with a resume, letters of recommendation.  Ask about using the organizational phone and email for your job search efforts while you are technically on the payroll due to weeks or months of accrued vacation time.
  • Get a copy of your personnel file. Performance reviews, letters of commendation, warnings, etc. Check with the person responsible for employee information and offer to copy the file yourself - "just for my own records." Look for documents you don't have in your personal personnel folder (which, of course, you have been keeping over the years), but make a copy of everything you can.
  •  Collect written recommendations – ("just in case.")  Ask for written recommendations before others in the organization move on, too.  Be sure to ask for such a letter from your supervisor on organizational letterhead.
  • Seek out those who will serve as references for you. Include paid staff and volunteers in your search.  If someone has had an opportunity to see you at work and seems to think you do a good job, ask if they will be a reference for you. Ask supervisors, managers, colleagues, co-workers, and even subordinates. Ask also for their personal contact information so that you can stay in touch after you or he/she leave your current employer. Get approval from as many people as possible because there will be attrition as time passes.  If someone seems reluctant, do no use him/her as a reference. The individual could hurt your next job search if a potential employer calls them.
  • Make contacts.  Gather the names of others in the community you have worked with.  Tell them your situation and ask them to keep you in mind if he/she hears about a job opening. 
  • Attend professional meetings.  For managers of volunteer programs, stay involved in the local association of managers of volunteers.  People in organizations often hear of job openings before they are public.
  • Be a reference for others.  If you enjoyed the working relationship with co-workers, colleagues, supervisors, and subordinates, offer to be a reference for them. This is one way to start your post-employment networking.
  • Quietly remove personal items from work.  Start taking home personal items, as quietly and as unobtrusively as possible. If you have done personal work on your office computer, be sure to take copies home and delete those files from the office computer.  Be careful about removing anything that the organization would consider to be "proprietary"

Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Sharpening Skills, Assessing Strengths:  Negotiating a Tightening Market, Feb. 12, 2009 , Marty Michaels,

http://hubpages.com/hub/LayoffProof-PreventFromGettingLaidOff, April 23

http://www.job-hunt.org/layoffs/preparing-for-a-layoff-office.shtml, April 23

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