If you have some experience with volunteer management, you’re likely to recognize the following steps which are how you, as an organization, offer the best possible volunteer experience:
PLAN. Work with your board and staff to identify volunteer roles and support systems.
RECRUIT. Promote your mission and clearly articulate the volunteer needs.
ORGANIZE and TRAIN. Provide comprehensive orientation and training as appropriate.
SUPERVISE and EVALUATE. Ensure tasks are completed correctly and the volunteer understands when his/her position’s goals are achieved.
RECOGNIZE. Regularly publicize and celebrate the significant contributions of volunteers for the awareness of stakeholders and the greater community.
These steps are known as the Volunteer Management Cycle (VMC). The VMC is the foundation of of current Volunteer Management Theory. There are numerous sub-steps for each major category. Various websites offer explanations or online tutorials to explore each step. The information is good and practical and proves relatively useful to those responsible for the weighty and seemingly endless task of managing volunteers.
Just one problem, really. It’s too much work.
I may be stating the obvious here, but most NPO’s who rely on volunteers do not have the resources to hire a Volunteer Coordinator. In fact, we usually see Executive Directors who are not only playing the role of Volunteer Coordinator but also Program Director, Event Coordinator and everything else in between. Needless to say, the VMC looks great on paper, but to even begin to imagine it’s implementation feels like wishful thinking...exhausting wishful thinking. And in the few cases where it is implemented in small to medium size organizations, it is doomed to fail for lack of energy, time and systemic organizational support. (As far as I know, the Volunteer Management Cycle originated out of a large, well-funded hospital here in Toronto.)
Oh, and did I mention the other slight defect? The Cycle is facing the wrong direction.
The VMC looks at the volunteer experience from the organization’s perspective. It encourages questions like, ‘Are we ready to receive volunteers? Can we describe the work clearly? Can we invite people to join us from the community? Are able to supervise and evaluate the work and appropriately thank them for doing it?’ These are good, important questions to consider. The problem is that the perspective is all wrong. We need to pull a one-eighty; turn our backs to the the organization (for now), and look through the eyes of the volunteer. Questions like, ‘What do we (the NPO) need, how do we ask for it, train for it, evaluate and recognize it?’ might work for staff (maybe), but volunteers are not simply staff. Not honorary staff, not staff emeritus, not unpaid staff....they are more than staff. Volunteers are both staff AND customer. This is why the task of providing a great volunteer experience often proves to be all too tricky.
So, why “customer”? Customers belong to for-profit businesses, while clients or patients belong to non-profit organizations....right? This assumption usually provides neat and necessary distinctions. (employee:customer, volunteer:client, server:served) For NPOs the distinction is easy. Servers have solutions and resources, the served have problems and needs, therefore volunteers naturally fall into the category of resource(r) and solution provider. The term ‘customer’ is a bit uncomfortable because it blurs the line. In the for-profit world, it’s not such a big deal as the makers of Ford cars will often end up being customers of Ford products. However, for an NPO it is counter-intuitive to consider that a volunteer may in fact be a customer of their services. The identity of a volunteer may end up being (and maybe even ought to be?) both server and served.
If this is the case, then the NPO should aim to benefit both client and volunteer with their services and activities. Conversely, both volunteer and client should be seen as contributors and treated as such.
Volunteers come to your organization because they have needs to be filled. They come because they believe you are offering something that will benefit them. They come for the same fundamental reasons as your clients. This is a simple truth, and one that has the potential to profoundly alter any organization who is willing to implement it as the starting point for managing volunteer programs.
So, what do our volunteers need? And how do we fashion a great volunteer experience in light of them?
When Paula began volunteering at “Sunday Suppers” at St Andrews Presbyterian Church, she stuck out like a sore thumb. Among the 200+ men, women and children who had found their way to us off the streets of Halifax, Paula was a “person of privilege” and obviously out of place in the surroundings. As an ER doctor at a nearby hospital she was well-dressed and carefully groomed. Our guests, on the other hand, were mostly unemployable with lifestyles that did not exactly necessitate a bath, much less a daily change of clothes. The contrast was distinct, but Paula was ready to “make a difference.” She was eager to help those “less fortunate.” She was sincere and thus managed not to look entirely uncomfortable.
Paula started out by preparing food in the kitchen. It seemed easier at first to have a little space between she and the guests and that was fine with me. Our new volunteers often needed time to acclimate. Later, Paula would help the other volunteers serve the food, and within months I would see her moving from table to table, enjoying all types of conversations with our guests.
About 3 months in, Paula came to me with a concerned expression on her face. She spoke slowly, and as her words tumbled haphazardly into shape, I realized they were familiar and the recognition made me smile. These same words had come from the mouths of hundreds of volunteers before Paula. Words like, “When I first came here, it was to give to these people. I wanted to do something for them - sacrifice myself, give something up. But now....it feels weird. I think I get more out of it than they do. I enjoy myself. I sit and talk. I even eat the food with them - the food I’m supposed to be serving them! I’m not giving anymore....I’m not sacrificing anything....I think I might be getting more out of my Sunday afternoons than I’m contributing.”
This moment with Paula, as ordinary as it sounds, was pure epiphany. She had stumbled upon her highest level of contribution. The significance of what she communicated to our guest by the simplicity of her presence, was immeasurable.
“Paula,” the conversation continued, ‘all week long these people are told, ‘get off my stoop, get away from my store, get a job’ and what they hear is, ‘you are unwanted, unlovable, unseen.’ But when they come here at the end of that week, your actions tell them things they rarely dare to hope could be true. You tell them they are not a project or a task. They are not a burden or embarrassment. When you sit down and give them your time and attention, you tell them they are seen, they are valuable, you are willing to spend some of your life with them.”
Paula and I continued to talk about these things over many months, and she gradually understood that her highest level of contribution is not limited to her skills or stature in society. She learned that her contribution comes out of who she is, and her own intrinsic value. The more she believed this about herself, the more she could offer it’s truth to her friends at the Sunday Suppers.
Paula was ‘staff’ as well as ‘customer’ or maybe more accurately, ‘giver and receiver’. She needed space to offer something and then be free to receive more than she was giving.
Ok, so let’s get to some practical solutions. How do you offer a great volunteer experience? Here are 6 steps, in a nutshell, that will be drawn out and explored over the next few weeks:
AUTOMATE EVERYTHING. Remove time and personnel barriers by making everything from recruiting and screening to job assignment and evaluation automatic. (It’s not as difficult as it sounds - promise.)
GIVE THE VOLUNTEER WHAT HE/SHE WANTS. Acknowledge what the volunteer wants to do (which will be all the wrong things, of course) and start there. (What they want isn’t what you need, but start there anyway.)
BUILD YOUR JOBS AROUND YOUR VOLUNTEERS. You’ll only drive yourself nuts looking for the perfect volunteer, so build jobs around the people that show up. (If you look long and hard enough, you can find something close to the perfect volunteer, but it’s always too little, too late.)
STOP TREATING EVERYONE EQUALLY. This is the most destructive part of most volunteer programs. Giving everyone equal say, equal privilege, equal leadership and equal recognition is a recipe for disaster. You will overwork the best and bore the hell out of the most promising.
DEMOTE YOUR STAFF. Re-write the job description of every staff member you have. In order to run an excellent volunteer program your staff must see themselves as facilitators of volunteers rather than “bosses” working to get a job done. Staff make it possible for volunteers to do the work, not the other way around.
DON’T BE SO NARROW-MINDED. I know you have a ‘primary audience’ with whom you work, whether it be diabetics or homeless youth. Your mission has got to include the broader population (stakeholders, if you want). You need them to buy in to your cause and push for long term, societal and political changes. Volunteers are as much the recipients of your good work as the ‘clients’ with whom you work.