By Kerry Ose and Bilqis Rock
As a Volunteer Maryland Peer Leader, I have been impressed by the way that many of the VMCs in my group are blazing a new trail. They are coordinator volunteer programs that do not exist yet, or, as one VMC put it, “advocating for volunteers before they are here.”
The stories I am hearing from these VMCs are inspiring. They are meeting with program directors, assessing needs, creating volunteer position descriptions, writing manuals and just generally developing a whole new arm of their organizations. But it isn’t easy. The origins of volunteer programs are a bit like creation myths — they involve obstacles, conflict, perseverance and lessons learned.
Bilqis Rock, one of my fellow VMCs from VM24, has always been particularly good at telling the story of her nascent volunteer program at Health Care for the Homeless (HCH), so I thought I would invite her to co-write this blog. She writes:
For a nonprofit, working with volunteers is a no-brainer. Volunteers are passionate about the cause, give your organization great PR, and best of all, they’re free! What’s not to love? This is what I thought entering Health Care for the Homeless last Fall as a Volunteer Maryland Coordinator. Turned out, volunteers were a tougher sell.
From the get-go, my supervisor told me that the challenge to developing a volunteer program at HCH would not lie in volunteer recruitment; there are many people requesting to volunteer with HCH every day. The more difficult part would be the internal work of establishing systems and expectations among staff members in order to create meaningful, sustainable and useful opportunities to engage community members.
I thought, pssht, people just need to hear the volunteer gospel, and they’ll get it. I’ll be able to put volunteers in action in no time.
During my HCH orientation, I asked a variety of team leaders, what ideas do you have for volunteer involvement with your team? In what ways can your staff and clients be supported? Some people told me how volunteers had not been useful in the past. Some came up with a few trivial tasks. Most often, I was met with a blank look.
Soon I realized that putting volunteers to work right away was not going to be my job. My job was going to be about building relationships with people across the HCH community to find out the answers to the question, “where do the needs, interests and abilities of HCH clients, staff and community intersect?” Creatively finding those intersections is the key to building a volunteer program at HCH.
These beautifully came together on a couple of occasions—when a barber provided haircuts for the men’s group, when physical therapy students provided otherwise inaccessible PT services, when public health and nursing students completed research projects and service efforts—but the process continues to be a work in progress.
Staff members are not inherently resistant the volunteers; I’ve found it is often rooted in a lack of vision for how volunteers should be appropriately incorporated into HCH’s work, and a lack of support for staff members throughout the volunteer process. These are areas that need to change to develop the volunteer program. This work takes time, and it’s a constantly moving target.
My training as a social worker comes in handy. I try to meet staff members where they are in terms of working with volunteers. I seek to understand their working environments and their motivations for resistance to change. Eventually, being able to acknowledge their perspectives, I ask them to form new ways of thinking and try new ways of operating.
What I know now is that deciding to engage volunteers in a nonprofit’s work is a no-brainer. Figuring out how to make that happen is a different story.