Working with Volunteers

The outreach coordinator and a board member of a not for profit organization contacted me for advice about working with volunteers. Like many similar organizations, their organization relies on volunteers to accomplish much of the work they do. They were wondering what they could do to insure that the relationship between their organization and their volunteers is positive and beneficial to both parties.

The advice I gave them was based on my experience with two different types of organizations. One was a membership-based professional organization and the other was a cultural heritage initiative. Despite the differences in the organizations, the principles and practices I used for engaging volunteers were similar. These principles and practices are applicable to any organization that recruits individual volunteers for specific jobs. Organizations that recruit large numbers of volunteers for events (e.g. coastal cleanup days, etc.) might take a somewhat different approach.

The first step is to develop a volunteer program. This means using a standard approach to recruit volunteers whenever a position becomes available, just as you would if you were filling any other type of position. For the professional organization, I worked with my colleagues (mostly other board members) to create position descriptions. We figured out who would be responsible for mentoring the volunteer. We posted the positions on our web site, recruited volunteers at the events we hosted and went through a lightweight interview and selection process.

For the cultural heritage initiative, my methods were less formal. Generally, I contacted people I knew who I thought would be interested and were qualified. If there is a trick to recruiting volunteers, it is to learn what sparks a person’s interest in volunteering. Do they want to learn, or build their resumes? Try to find a match for their interests that are aligned with the organization’s goals.

Once volunteers were in their positions, I checked in with them and with their mentors periodically to see how things were going. Sometimes we needed to make adjustments to duties or time commitments. Sometimes the volunteer needed a reminder or some coaching about expectations or some training on how to accomplish a particular goal.

Occasionally, things don’t work out as planned. Sometimes people are reluctant to fire volunteers because volunteers are not getting paid. However, it is a mistake to allow a person who is not performing or is not a good match for the job to continue in a volunteer role. Organizations rely on volunteers for critical work and use resources to mentor volunteers. In addition, volunteers are often seeking experience to explore a career change. They should be able to rely on an honest appraisal of their abilities to help them decide whether or not the career they are exploring is right for them.

Creating a volunteer program can be rewarding and an effective strategy to accomplish organizational goals in not for profit organizations. In the membership-based professional organization, volunteers staffed our board, ran our events, and updated and maintained our web site. For the cultural heritage organization, volunteers developed a new set of standards and created a web site for access to primary resources for scholars. How can creating a volunteer program help your not for profit organization meet its goals?


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