I’ve worked with volunteers in myriad capacities for close to two decades. Any project that’s either not, or not well, funded will need to rely upon the generosity of others for their time, expertise, or presence to make it run. In some instances I was so desperate for help, I would willingly take anyone. (Not a good idea.) In other cases, I had more volunteers than I had the capacity to effectively utilize. So from experiencing these two extremes, I’ve learned a few things which might be helpful:
1. Have a good recruitment strategy.
Make it multi-pronged. Post on volunteer websites, especially regional ones. This will be a good way of actually reaching people who WANT to volunteer – they’ve already identified themselves by proactively going to the site. Connect with sector specific organizations. If you’re looking for volunteer tax preparers, connect with the membership organizations of accountants or business professionals. Many college students are interested in building their resume with volunteer hours, or have scholarships that require community service. Target the appropriate class, get a student and professor on the inside and have them recruit through their personal networks.
2. Stay a step ahead.
Or better yet, three or four steps. If this is the first time you’ve launched the program, there will be a lot of logistics to consider. Are the volunteers adequately trained? What documentation or screening do you need from them? Do hours need to be tracked? Do schedules need to be coordinated? Locations booked? Technology or tools secured? How clear are you on what they’ll need to be doing? Make sure you or some one else who’s designated a) understands what needs to be done and b) can teach others how to do it. Remember, you’re in charge and they’re looking to you to take the lead.
3. Thank them.
Show your appreciation. Show your excitement for their help. Express how the program can’t run without their collaborative efforts. Having a big party at the end to celebrate the collective accomplishment, along with a debriefing to learn from their perspectives, can be really valuable. But these elements can actually be woven into the activity as it’s happening. Be open and receptive to hear their spur-of-the-moment feedback and suggestions. Chances are they can point out something important that you’ve overlooked. Implementing the correction could make a difference in the remaining time together.
One of the key faculties of being a good leader and a good manager is the ability to learn. After 20 years, I’m still learning tons about managing volunteers. And while these all important workers for your cause look to you to lead, they’ll hopefully recognize that as a human, you too will make mistakes. What’s key then is for you to continually learn and grow alongside them.