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Practicing What We Preach

Practicing What We Preach

The next time you have a few volunteer program managers together, here’s an interesting exercise question:

“How many of you have volunteers working side-by-side with you to do what’s needed for successful volunteer engagement – beyond helping with clerical work?”

When we ask this in workshops, it always amazes (and dismays) us how few hands go up.

The job of running a volunteer program is so demanding that it seems obvious that volunteers would be of great help in simply keeping up with the work (and retaining your sanity!). This is particularly true in light of how many colleagues are expected to manage volunteer resources during only part of their work time, frequently juggling it with one or two or even more major responsibilities. 

With that in mind, here’s another question: Are you asking volunteers to help you with these other responsibilities?

All the rationales we present to other paid staff to explain why they should create assignments for volunteers apply equally to us as volunteer program managers. But do we practice what we preach? Why do we resist sharing our work with volunteers? We’d be more effective in bringing dubious staff around if we walked the talk as role models, intentionally demonstrating how to partner with volunteers. After all, if we don’t trust volunteers with important tasks that matter to us, why should other staff take the risk?

Why Not?

Colleagues have come up with all sorts of reasons why it feels uncomfortable to recruit a team of volunteers assigned specifically to the volunteer office. Here are a few, and our counter opinions: 

It’s skimming the cream off the top. Some say it seems wrong or self-serving to be on the lookout for great applicants and “keep them” for the volunteer office.  

We say: If the entire organization benefits from the best possible volunteer program, it becomes smart strategy to welcome highly-competent people onto the volunteer management team because they will build an even better program. Further, the point is not to recruit people interested in another volunteer position in your organization and then hope to interview a few you can convince to help you instead; we’re talking about intentionally designing roles for work you lead and recruiting volunteers who come in wanting to help with volunteer management. Steve would actually take this one step further and offers one of McCurley’s Rules: “Keep the best volunteers for yourself.”

I have been hired to be responsible for volunteers, so how can I delegate that work away?

We say: Isn’t this exactly what we are asking other paid staff to do with their work? If we understand that volunteers can share staff tasks (even take them over) or do important projects that paid staff can’t, it ought to be simple to apply the same logic to our own work. We are not dumping our responsibilities on qualified volunteers; we are expanding the amount of effort being put into what needs to be done. 

One of the things they don’t tell new mangers of volunteer programs is that it’s easy to create more work than can be done by a single person.  If you’re creative, if you’re good at recruitment, if you’re a nice person that others enjoy working with, then quickly finding that you have more to do than anyone can handle is a foregone conclusion.  The organization can benefit from all those extras that you generate, but it will benefit more if you have the wisdom to allow others to help you effectively manage the new activity – and that almost always means promoting volunteers to be your middle managers or allowing them to take almost full responsibility for implementing some projects.  Remember that as a manager of the volunteer program you weren’t hired to do everything; you were hired to make sure that everything gets done effectively – “managing” implicitly implies getting other people involved.

Other volunteers will resent seeing only a few volunteers being given leadership roles over them.

We say: What makes you think that’s going to happen? We are not proposing to offer volunteer management positions as a reward for being a good volunteer elsewhere in the organization; this is a matter of finding qualified people who will be successful in the new roles – ultimately supporting all the other volunteers. Most will be newcomers attracted specifically to these roles, just as current volunteers were attracted to what they are doing now. In fact, one of the trickiest things about getting volunteers involved in helping you manage is not to assume that your current volunteers will automatically want these positions; they likely are much more interested and much happier with the volunteer work they already have – and may have no interest at all in being an administrative volunteer.

I don’t have time to properly train and manage a team of volunteers.

We say: Hmmm. Doesn’t this sound familiar? If this is the reason you do not have volunteers working with you, how can you be honest in asking other staff to make time? Of course it is time-consuming to develop a solid team of volunteers, but the alternative is to keep using all your time doing the same amount and level of activity. You could clone yourself to add extra brains and hands, but ironically that would only duplicate your own talents. What about the things that you can’t do well or dislike doing? How great would it be to find volunteers who love those very things and so will do them even better than you? Look yourself in the mirror and say the same thing you would say to a staff person who gave that excuse: “Yep, in the short run it’s going to cost you more time and effort than what you will get in return, but in the long run it will be the most valuable thing you can do.”

These are only a sampling, but you can quickly see the point: it’s important to overcome your own resistance to the idea of partnering with volunteers. Once you do so, we bet you’ll be much better at advocating for them with everyone else on staff.

What Work Can Be Shared?

In their book, The (Help!) I-Don't-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management (Energize, 2003), Susan and Katie Campbell devote a whole chapter to discussing what they call “administrative volunteers:”

"Administrative volunteers" are volunteers specifically recruited to run the volunteer program.  This is their only assignment.  In addition to adding valuable time which you don't have, assigning volunteers to assist you directly has two other benefits:  it demonstrates to the rest of staff that you, too, are willing to utilize volunteers in substantial ways; and it offers meaningful assignments to those volunteers preferring administrative rather than direct-service roles.

Be careful not to confuse administrative volunteers with clerical workers.  Administrative volunteers are actually "assistant directors of volunteers," carrying major responsibility for key aspects of program coordination.  (p. 51)

The roles filled by the right volunteers will naturally vary with your organization’s needs and also with your personal strengths/weaknesses and likes/dislikes. Here are some criteria for how to craft winning position descriptions for volunteers:

  • Do a task analysis of how you spend your days and write down the discrete elements of your volunteer management functions. For example, “recruitment” results from a wide cluster of activities, and each requires time and certain skills: writing press releases and notices; designing flyers; selecting online volunteer opportunity registries, posting them, and keeping the posts updated; using social media such as Facebook; scheduling; writing a speech and presenting at speaking engagements; and much more. You can immediately see that even this short list includes many different actions, often requiring widely different skills (writing text is worlds apart from illustrating or laying out a brochure). These actions become the basis for possible roles for the right volunteers.
  • Chose activities that are goal-oriented or product-oriented, rather than time-determined. You’ll have more success finding a volunteer to accomplish work that does not have to be done on a specific day or shift, or on a regular schedule. You can set deadlines for results, but offer flexibility as to when (or even where) the volunteer can produce them. Think projects.
  • Diagnose your own skills and develop roles for volunteers who possess different ones. Think about where you need help and what tasks you are not so good at doing yourself – and turn these insights into opportunities for others. For example, you may dislike hounding volunteers for their monthly reports, but someone else might enjoy taking responsibility to gather recordkeeping data.  If you have stage fright, spend your time creating bullet points for presentations but find a volunteer who is a great public speaker. And remember: your volunteer management team should complement you, not duplicate you. 
  • Pick activities where gaining the input and perspective of a volunteer will make the outcome even better. A great example? Orientation of new volunteers. If experienced and friendly volunteers take charge of orientation (the content of which was developed with and approved by you), the newcomers will give more credence to what is said and see for themselves that volunteers are truly valued by the organization. We might even argue that some of the tasks in volunteer management can be done at least as well by volunteers as by a paid person, with recruitment being the easiest example.
  • Try to be creative, if only to set an example for other staff. One of Steve’s favorite ideas for “volunteer roles to help in volunteer management” is having a volunteer mentor who gives advice to a new volunteer program manager.  And one of the best recruitment pools to draw from is the retired corps of old-time volunteer program managers who have a lot of common sense and cunning to offer.

Creative Juices Starter

What types of roles would be incredibly useful to volunteer program management? Here are some possible position titles for qualified and interested volunteers. We hope the titles will intrigue you into defining the possible work involved:

  • Blog Writer
  • New Volunteer Orientation Leader
  • School Liaison for Student Interns
  • Skills Bank Coordinator for On-Call Volunteering
  • Facebook Presence Facilitator
  • Family Volunteer Greeter
  • Tuesday Shift Leader
  • Exit Interviewer
  • Volunteer Position Description Reviewer
  • Cyber Research Deputy
  • Trends and Issues Web Surfer
  • Resource Developer
  • In-service Training Coordinator
  • Evening Supervisor
  • Volunteer Engagement Advisor
  • Special Recognition Chief
  • Corporate Employee Volunteer Team Organizer
  • Events Troubleshooter
  • Teen Volunteer Specialist
  • Speaking Engagement Scheduler
  • Survey Creation Guru
  • Annual Report Editor
  • Official Photographer
  • Video Producer

Remember, as well, that trained administrative volunteers can often substitute for you in your absence. If they know enough about the overall operation of the program to act knowledgeably, they can attend meetings on your behalf, both in-house and outside in the community. And with your permission, they can read online discussion forums for you, bringing relevant posts to your attention and even responding for you when appropriate.    

Where to Find these Volunteers?

In The (Help!) Guide, Susan and Katie also write:  “Remember that if you are enthusiastic about your role, others can be, too.  Sell the assignment based on what you enjoy most about the job – variety, people contact, creativity, management experience, etc.” (p. 55). 

But where to find these volunteers? There are several target pools:

  • Invite current volunteers who may be ready to change roles (or add an additional one) to apply for your administrative positions – but only if you know they have the necessary qualifications and are interested in doing this very different kind of work.
  • Consider asking great volunteers who are no longer active – but might be enticed back – to handle specific projects for you.
  • Student interns, especially at graduate school level, can be enormously helpful in their areas of study.
  • Think about past presidents of civic and community groups, coordinators of large special events, and others who actually have demonstrated an understanding of volunteer management.
  • Offer an “internship in volunteer administration” for people who may be interested in exploring our profession as a career. Publicize it as you would any other volunteer role (note that Energize offers a free area specifically for this purpose in its online job bank.  

Remember: It all starts with your determination to practice what we preach. The great result, of course, is that you also get real help with the complex work of mobilizing volunteers!

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