Thursday, March 26, 2009

My Volunteer Management Manifesto - What would you add?

Here's the thing. I volunteer a lot.

If you include church stuff, last week I gave almost 30 hours to volunteer service. Admittedly, last week was an unusually high-volume volunteer week, but I probably average between 10 and 12 hours a week. So I know what it's like to be a volunteer.

I've also recruited, trained, and supervised volunteers for years, starting way back when I worked on my Eagle Scout service project, all the way through my time at IU as a student and then as staff, to my time as a professional fundraiser supervising volunteers in the process of soliciting their peers for donations. So I know what it's like to depend on volunteers for the success of a project, event, or initiative.

From my perspective, the single most important thing about the volunteer experience is to remember that at any point, for any reason, with or without notice, the volunteer may walk away. Sure, most volunteers will at least let you know why they're leaving, but you can't necessarily expect that.

We volunteers are doing what we're doing -- whether it's building a Habitat house or staffing a soup kitchen or walking/cycling/triathloning/scavenger hunting to raise money -- because we believe it's important. Of course, the reasons we believe it's important to volunteer vary:
  • Because a loved one dealt with this important cause (homelessness, prostate cancer, Alzheimer's, etc.)
  • Because we want to feel like we're part of something (a solution, a team, a movement)
  • Because there's some pay-off (our school requires community service, a resume is padded, enhanced networking opportunities, etc.)
  • Because a trusted person asked us to
  • Because we want to meet new people
  • Because we want to learn more about an organization
  • Because we want to "help" or "give back"
  • Because we feel some duty - civic, personal, social
  • Because it gives us a chance to share a special skill or develop new ones
  • Because if we volunteer, we get into an event for free
  • And tons more
The reality is, we each come to the volunteer experience from our own perspective. But the single most important thing any volunteer manager can do is listen and look for our motivation for volunteering and honor that by helping us achieve that goal or fulfill that need. And for Heaven's sake, don't get actively in the way of us achieving our own personal goals for volunteering.

Here are five important things I've learned about the care and feeding of volunteers:
  1. Volunteers need direction. You can call it guidance, or leadership, or vision, or management, but we volunteers need someone telling us what to do -- and, often, how to do it, and why. Usually, that's a staff person, but sometimes it's another volunteer.
  2. Volunteers need communication.* And not just while we're on-site; we need immediate information that will help us fulfill our role (and meet our motivational need for volunteering) and we need to know that what we're doing matters in the long-term, big picture. Of course, communication is a two-way street -- we volunteers need to feel listened to, as well. Often, your volunteers are the ones who can most immediately (and cheaply!) help you meet a challenge or identify a solution to a problem.
  3. Volunteers need acknowledgment. The annual volunteer-recognition dinner is an important event, but the more important opportunities come every single day, when you have an opportunity to thank a volunteer face-to-face, sincerely.
  4. Volunteers need training. Even the briefest orientation communicates to us volunteers that what we're doing matters. And if it helps to equip us as teammates for your organization, all the better. For what better ambassador for your org than someone who has given his or her own time on your org's behalf, talked to your service recipients and made a difference in their life -- who could possibly be a more powerful advocate?
  5. Volunteers deserve honesty. If I'm failing as a volunteer, it's OK to address that with me. You might even have to "fire" me by speaking with me directly about how it's not working out, and helping me find another opportunity that better fits my skills -- either within or outside your organization. But if you can do that sensitively and with loving truth, it could be the most important interaction in either of our experiences.
The reality is this: most volunteer managers simply don't think about what we volunteers need -- there's just not time. Very few people only manage volunteers and have no other component to their job. And that's OK. But if we can all come together to build a culture of best practices in volunteer management, our orgs will be a lot better off, now and in the future.

* In fact, this is the reason for this post today. I'm part of a couple organizing committees for upcoming events, and the most frustrating thing that I've been dealing with is unacknowledged e-mails and unreturned phone calls. Not. Cool.


jss said...

Those are great ideas. It's unfortunate that volunteers are underappreciated right up to the point that they walk out. Then they become very valuable, but gone and probably not willing to come back.
I think you should write a book on managing volunteers - or at least market yourself as a volunteer consultant. I think you'd do very well! *Just don't volunteer to be the consultant!!!* :-)

Robby said...

I've often wondered if you could create a volunteer environment with a shared risk/incentive.

For example, what if every volunteer has the option to make a $20 deposit to indicate that they will be on time. If they don't show, the $20 goes to the non-profit. If they do show up, they get their $20 back plus a special gift. People who don't take this option just don't get the gift.

Too crazy?