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The Key to Volunteer Success


Tuesday, 1st March 2016 at 10:23 am
Susan Ellis
Mutually expressing clear and transparent expectations is the key to effective volunteer engagement, writes expert in international training and volunteerism, Susan J. Ellis.

Tuesday, 1st March 2016
at 10:23 am
Susan Ellis


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The Key to Volunteer Success
Tuesday, 1st March 2016 at 10:23 am

Mutually expressing clear and transparent expectations is the key to effective volunteer engagement, writes expert in international training and volunteerism, Susan J. Ellis.

There is general agreement on the process needed to hire employees successfully, both to meet the goals of the organisation and to satisfy each paid worker. Regardless of the specific circumstances, both employer and employee expect to define the scope of work and establish relationships within a chain of authority and accountability. But what are the expectations when some or all of the key workers are volunteers?

Unfortunately, too often we suspend what we know about performance management when working with volunteers. Perhaps out of a misguided sense that any donated service should be accepted gratefully without discussing the details or simple awkwardness about how to negotiate expectations in positive ways, we can end up with volunteers whose time and talents miss the mark or even become a distraction from what truly needs to get done. This hurts our mission and is not very nice to volunteers either.

Mutually expressing clear and transparent expectations is key to effective volunteer engagement, most particularly with those who are recruited for governance and other highly skilled roles.

Here’s why:

  • By definition volunteers are outsiders, brought into the organisation for their passion and skills. They cannot know how things are done unless we tell them. Position descriptions, induction, and relevant training are therefore respectful, not insulting.
  • The (limited) number of hours volunteers give are squeezed out of their already busy lives. To maximise their contribution, therefore, we need to make sure they can hit the ground running and focus their actions productively on what is most needed. Without clear role definition, we risk wasting their time – truly unacceptable.
  • Examine the fear that telling the truth about what we really want from volunteers will scare them off. If we minimise the commitment we need, why should we think the people who sign up have any intention of doing more? In fact, isn’t it better that prospective volunteers assess the role we are offering and self-screen out if they don’t want to do it? Conversely, those who are attracted to the challenge we offer are immediately more willing to do the work.
  • Negotiate how work will be done, not just the list of tasks. What must be done on-site? What can be done online or by phone? Is the volunteer responsible for clerical or administrative tasks or will the organisation provide such support? How often will the volunteer and the designated staff liaison be in communication? Is texting acceptable? These sorts of discussions need to be done each time a new volunteer comes on board. Never assume the answers.
  • Discussing boundaries establishes that they exist. Who has the authority to do what? What is limited by law or by policy? What needs to be cleared in advance? When can the volunteer act independently? But when s/he does so, what needs to be reported? Yes, these are rules. But if the rules are sensible, the volunteer will appreciate knowing how to do things properly.

All of this is comparatively easy to do with new volunteers. But what about long-time volunteers who were brought into the organisation before the current staff was hired – who possibly founded the organisation? Such volunteers have accrued their roles, adding tasks over time as needed (or wanted). They are perfectly comfortable with the status quo and feel they are entitled to continue their self-defined work.

The problem is that today their work habits are no longer what the organisation needs. Worse, they may not blend well with newer volunteers who may give less time (even if they accomplish more), handle new roles, and are “different” in age, ethnicity, education, or other characteristics.

First, acknowledge that such entrenched volunteers were allowed to become so by earlier staff members! Start with respect for the many hours of time they have given willingly to your cause and remind them that they want to do the most valuable service needed now. Therefore, together, you will renegotiate their roles so that they are not only doing things right, but are doing the right things right.

There are very few subjects that cannot be raised with volunteers, particularly if you are trying to make decisions that affect them. Sharing a concern or inviting input into a problem is a form of recognition. It demonstrates that you believe volunteers are team members who give their heads and mouths along with their hearts and hands.

Want to know more?

Executive Webinar: Negotiating Relationships with and among Volunteers. Wednesday 9 March 11am. Don’t assume everyone is on the same page; clarify roles and procedures with long-time and new volunteers. This 60 minute webinar will focus on thorny issues of performance management in volunteer engagement. Presenter Susan Ellis is President of Energize, Inc., an international training, consulting, and publishing firm that specialises in volunteerism. Book now.


Susan Ellis  |   |  @ProBonoNews

Susan Ellis is President of Energize, Inc, an international training, consulting, and publishing firm that specialises in volunteerism.

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