Volunteer Orientation for Environmental Organizations: A different approach….

Volunteer Maryland (VM), an AmeriCorps program, has created a model for volunteer program managers that can be applied to various types of organizations and agencies.  In fact, Volunteer Maryland Coordinators (VMCs) are placed at organizations ranging from government agencies to environmental preservation corporations.  Each VMC is given the task of creating or sustaining a volunteer program to help support the particular agency’s mission.  As I’ve stated in past posts, VM uses a model called the Cycle of Volunteer Program Development which is broken down into three parts:  The Big Picture, Foundation Building, and Program Implementation.

While the VM model begins with The Big Picture and ends with Program Implementation, the truth is, this model runs full-circle and thus, there is no beginning or no end.  This makes it difficult to know where to begin.  Further, each organization is different; therefore the steps taken to complete each section of the cycle may not occur in the same order. This is especially true for VMCs who have been placed at organizations dedicated to environmental causes.  Being a Regional Coordinator, I am able to work with the VMCs at these sights to figure out where they need the most resources and assistance.  The Cycle of Program Development used by VM always relates each step back to the mission and/or purpose of the given organization.  However, for VMCs serving at environmental organizations and agencies, the Big Picture is not as noticeable. Many VMCs at environmental organizations find themselves beginning in stage 3:  Program Implementation, rather than in stage 1, the Big Picture.  For example, how would an individual managing a group of 25 girl scouts doing a bulb-planting, relate the event back to all the elements that fall under the Big Picture (community need, agency mission, program vision, key players, budget/resources, evaluation, and sustainability)?  The answer: effective orientation.

Some of the main differences between orienting volunteers at environmental organizations versus other, more social-based organizations are that many of their volunteers at environmental organizations are episodic or one-time volunteers.  Another difference is that volunteer events are rarely held on the grounds of the actual organization; the event locations change depending on the activity being completed.  Both of these facts make it difficult for volunteer managers to connect the volunteer’s immediate service with an organization’s long-term mission and vision.

VM proposes that there are three aspects of orientation: Cause, System, and Social. The Cause Orientation answers the question: why should I be volunteering here?  The System Orientation answers the question: how will I be volunteering here?  The Social Orientation answers the question: how do I fit in with everyone else?  Being that environmental organizations have such unique volunteer arrangements, they are in an interesting position when it comes to implementing these aspects within an orientation.

Most orientations for events where volunteers will be outdoors need to be thorough in that they tell what and how volunteers will be serving.  They also need to be time sensitive as volunteers are usually outdoors and need to cover a certain allotted distance in a specific amount of time.

Here are some tips to help implement the aspects of volunteer orientation at your environmental organization or agency:

Cause Orientationwhy should I be volunteering here?

Give information about clients served by the organization   

Effectively communicate the issue, problem, or need for the event

System Orientationhow will I be volunteering here?

Give specific instructions and details about the activities that volunteers will be completing during the event

Introduce any equipment or tools and instruct volunteers on proper use of those tools

Go over proper conduct rules including proper attire and potential reasons for termination

Social Orientation—how do I fit in with everyone else?

Introduce key staff members and give instructions as to who volunteers should report to for further questions or instruction

            Communicate the goals for the day

            Communicate how the completion of their service impacts the organization

I’d like to close with the following quote taken directly from the Volunteer Maryland Coordinator Tool Book; a 200-page binder filled with resources and guidelines for effective volunteer management.

“People want to make a commitment to a purpose, a goal, a vision that is bigger than themselves—big enough to make them stretch and assume personal responsibility for achieving”

John Naisbett and Patricia Aburdeen

Now that you’ve seen a little piece of the way volunteer orientation looks for VMCs, tell us how you orient volunteers at your organization!

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