Working with Volunteers

Volunteer SignI’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.

One thought on “Working with Volunteers

  1. Useful article Jeffrey, thanks.
    Additionally in my experience working with volunteers at it has been very useful to also look at:

    – purpose
    I think the kinds of organisations we work for, can assume that the key reason why volunteers join is the purpose of what the organisation stands for and wants to achieve. Communicating clearly that sense of purpose is what I found to be incentive number one for many a volunteer.

    – create a very clear set of objectives from the start
    ideally you want to offer them a goal and then co-create the way of getting there and the tasks needed so as to make sure they are truly engaged = THEY decided what should be done.
    Having said that with more junior volunteers they might need more guidance so breaking down a project into smaller doable specific tasks may avoid them feeling lost and wondering what to do and thus give them more a sense of achievement once their “smaller” task is achieved.

    – we found that making the “thank you” as formal as possible is another attractor. Specially amongst younger volunteers the achievement of a formal document of recognition once a set of tasks is accomplished is a big incentive.

    – making them aware of the impact
    For more senior and in general for all volunteers – making sure that they have a visible sense of the impact they have made makes all the difference. Very complex tasks become more doable when people can see just how and where they are affecting and making a difference in the overall goals of the organisation.

    – having regular dialogue
    this is the most time-consuming part where you sometimes wonder if it would not be easier to do things yourself [smiling] but specially if you are looking forward to a long term effective relationship, the more regular opportunities for checking status, being available to support and remove obstacles is very important.

    The above just a quick few ideas but looking forward to hearing more views on this important point.

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