During my AmeriCorps VISTA year, I served as the Robotics Coordinator at the JHU Center for Educational outreach. My project incorporated a wide array of activities that were often connected only by their association with competitive robotics, so the character of my service at any moment in the year was directly tied to the progress of the VEX Robotics season for Baltimore City Public Schools. My first two months were dominated by undergraduate recruitment for a mentoring program where college students would work with middle school robotics teams during the season. Then the season started, and my responsibilities began to spread out more: helping plan and support event recruitment, training and managing mentors, running the VEX program at a local community center, and helping with a lot of behind the scenes event logistics. The season was a busy time that ran from late October to late February. Once the season was over, everything shifted once again: now I was creating and revising sustainable plans based on what I had learned already, and formally evaluating the mentor program with input from children, coaches, and mentors. Additionally, I was reworking the City Schools robotics website, and helping to optimize the storage space for robotics gear.
The toughest times of the year are when you are trying to contact people who are nonresponsive, and it’s impossible to get anything done without hearing from them. Recruitment and evaluation can both cause this sort of bottleneck, as can ideas that need someone’s approval. If your year is built around heightened activity for a stretch here and there—like my VEX season–other times can feel like the doldrums. So what can you do when things get slow?
- This is a great time to evaluate. If you have two or three months where you won’t need your volunteers, set up interviews or focus groups to get feedback. It shows you are interested, keeps them in contact and invested in your site, and gives you valuable information. It’s not a bad idea to look for ways to tie this into recognition, as well.
- Sustainability plans: this is a time that you can consider how your volunteer program can carry on without you. Does the program need room to expand? If you chart the course, can certain volunteers or staff assume the torch with significantly less investment of time and energy than you are putting in? What have you tried that never needs to be attempted again? What has worked well, and what has promise despite lukewarm results?
- Get to know your team and their projects, and especially projects they wish they could implement. Sometimes, you can find new areas of expansion for volunteer programs this way, and gain new sources of support in the office. The sustainability of your volunteer program is much more robust if many people around the office see the value to projects important to them.
- Arrange a supplemental training day for your volunteers. If you got a lot of feedback about certain issues, there may be interest in an offseason training session. Similar to evaluation tactics, this offers volunteers a chance to make a bigger investment in their work and keeps them connected to you and the site.
- Recruitment! Offseason recruitment is not always easy because volunteers don’t like to be committed as early as you want to have them signed up. However, you can lay the groundwork by advertising a future recruitment event. It’s also a good time to network to try to find new sources of volunteers that you can reach out to in the future.
If you have any other thoughts on how to push through the slow periods of volunteer coordination and to maintain productivity and motivation, please share them!