As I have shared here before, our work at Volunteer Maryland is cyclical. For me, as Outreach Manager, the winter months are all about traveling the State, often with Amelia, holding info sessions with Charlotte Davis, Executive Director of the Rural Maryland Council, and spreading the gospel, as it were, of volunteer program development with folks from nonprofits, schools and government agencies.
Today, Amelia and I are headed to Baltimore. Last week it was Silver Spring. Next week it will be Elkton, and later this winter, we’ll be in Leonardtown, Salisbury and Columbia. Each region of the State has its own strengths and challenges when it comes to volunteer engagement, but there are a few trends, and a few universals, that I learn about in my conversations at these info sessions. These trends bear out in our partnerships and in the experiences of our Volunteer Maryland Coordinators.
These universals are also evident in my own experience as a volunteer. In fact, the insights we gain as volunteers and from volunteers teach us almost everything we need to know about great volunteer management.
Though they cannot be summed up in a tidy listicle, here are just a few questions that most volunteers have, and that great volunteer coordinators work hard to answer. If you have questions to add to this list, please leave a comment. We’d love to learn from your experience.
- How does my service with your organization meet community needs? Organizations are often stretched thin — staff, money, time and other resources are hard to come by. So when volunteers appear on the horizon, it’s natural for organizational leaders to think about what those volunteers can do for the organization. That very understandable mindset leads to engaging volunteers as fundraisers and office helpers, which is often perfectly fine. But many volunteers want to contribute directly to your mission. If your organization can concisely and quantitatively articulate the community need you exist to address, that lays the groundwork for engaging volunteers in meeting that need — whether the need is to feed the hungry, remove invasive plants, tutor kindergarteners or help people find permanent housing.
- What will I be doing? This seems like an easy question that most organizations are able to answer for their would-be volunteers. And in very simple terms, most organizations are able to provide this information. But think for a moment about your paid work. What would you do if you had a title, but no position description? In much the same way that would-be employees need detailed information about the duties, necessary qualifications, time commitment, benefits, supervision and evaluation, volunteers appreciate this information, too. Thoughtful, comprehensive volunteer position descriptions help you recruit people who are a great fit for your organization and your volunteer opportunities.
- Will someone teach me how to do this? So you found the perfect volunteer — congratulations! That means she can jump in and start making a difference right away, right? Maybe, but even the most skilled volunteers need orientation and training. Perhaps they have lots of experience, or maybe their duties are simple and straightforward. Even so, they still need to learn how to serve with your organization. A good orientation lets them know the impact of their service, the ins and outs of your organizational culture and what their place is in that culture. And careful training in the tasks they will perform ensures that everyone is on the same page and that volunteers will be confident as they serve.
- Is it safe? Good orientation and training often addresses this question, but risk management is something all volunteer programs need to think through very carefully. There are myriad risks to volunteers and those they serve — it’s unavoidable. What organizations must do, however, is assess, mitigate against and manage that risk. Does your organization have liability insurance that covers volunteers? Have you done background checks on volunteers, especially those who work with vulnerable populations? Do your volunteers feel safe? If you are sending volunteers into potentially dangerous situations, such as using heavy machinery or providing services to individuals who may struggle with violence, have you fully equipped volunteers to manage these risks?
- Do you value my contribution? An hour of volunteer service is now valued at over $23.00. Those who give freely of their time and talents do it not for the money, but because they want to change their communities for the better. Such altruistic individuals are, of course, still human. All volunteers need some form of recognition, and what is meaningful to some volunteers may fall flat for others. This is why it’s important to get to know your volunteers, supervise their work, provide evaluation and feedback and, in a way that is possible for you and positive for them, let them know their service matters. This can be as simple and cost effective as handwritten thank you notes or shout-outs to volunteers on your organization’s blog or Facebook page. It can take the form of a big, annual banquet or a small, impromptu pizza party. There are hundreds of ideas out there for volunteer recognition. Which ones will your organization try?