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The Takeaway: Essential Elements of Volunteer Management

2010 June 15
by Mike Ewing

Our latest workshop, the Excellence in Volunteer Management Training Series brought volunteer managers and nonprofit professional from all over the region to The Volunteer Center. One of the main points that seemed to stand out to attendees was that successful volunteer management can really be broken down into five essential elements. These five different elements are all essential components of the whole, and by looking at each element separately, volunteer managers can identify how to make their program as successful as possible.

For new volunteer managers, or those looking to improve their programs, these five essential elements are the following:

1.  Create a Plan for the Volunteer Program

Before you even start looking for volunteers to assist your organization, you need to first determine what your needs are, who will manage these volunteers, and what exactly their positions should be. The first step should always be a needs assessment, where program staff and volunteer managers (who may be the same person) sit down and determine exactly what they need help with. While these needs can sometimes be very straightforward, such as needing volunteers to assist with an event or do administrative work, more complicated tasks may require some expert assistance.  Yes, the first step in developing your volunteer program may be bringing in volunteers to help tell you exactly what your needs are. Experts can easily break marketing, technology, and other complex types of projects into a few simple steps that make them much easier to manage. Having an expert on board from the beginning can also help you make sure that your project is done right the first time.

This also brings up a second essential point: Keeping up-to-date on the latest trends in volunteering can help spark ideas of how volunteers can serve your organization’s needs. One trend in particular that can be useful in this planning stage is that in today’s economy, people who are in-between jobs (even executives) are turning to volunteering as a way to keep their skills sharp, develop new networking contacts, and build their resumes. Also, kids that are off for summer vacation can be a great source of volunteer assistance and energy.

In the end, this plan should contain a detailed list of what your organization’s goals and needs are, how volunteers (whether “traditional,” pro bono, or “virtual” volunteers) can help you meet those goals, and who will guide the program as it develops.

2. Recruit and Place Volunteers

Now that you know what volunteers you need, you can set about recruiting them.  A good place to start is writing an effective opportunity listing that both accurately describes the position and makes volunteers want to help your organization.

Once you have the opportunities in hand, you should plan a recruitment strategy that brings staff members together into a volunteer recruitment team and utilizes a wide range of techniques for reaching out to people in the community.  Whether through effective use of social networking sites, volunteering databases, or more “traditional” media, you should promote your volunteer needs and events as widely as possible. Once you start getting applications in its also important that you have some sort of  screening process for volunteers to ensure that you place them in appropriate positions. Creating an online survey through programs like Survey Monkey can help you identify the ideal candidates for a position.

3. Orient and Train Volunteers and Staff

Orienting and training helps get everyone on the same page and goes a long way towards ensuring a volunteer engagement is successful. From the beginning, its important to determine exactly what volunteers will need to know in order to be successful. This can include information about the goal and vision of your organization as well as the more nuts-and-bolts type information about the task at hand. Having gone through many orientations myself, I know that it helps me be a much more successful volunteer when the organization makes an effort from the beginning to get me excited about its mission. If some sort of skills are necessary for the position, make sure you plan some time for teaching and training those volunteers that don’t have those skills already, or may need a quick refresher.

Training your staff in volunteer management is also a great way to ensure that your volunteer program is effective in achieving the goals you set forward in the beginning.

4. Supervise and Recognize Volunteers

Just as you organize a schedule for your volunteers to come in, you need to organize supervision and management activities to support the work of the volunteers. In managing volunteers, you should always be conscious of the internal and external motivators for volunteers. Different personality types react differently to different management styles, so you should be careful that your method for managing volunteers doesn’t upset some by being too impersonal or too disorganized. To ensure that your volunteers stay happy (and come back), you should develop some sort of method for recognizing them. Small gifts, from quote books to branded pens, can be a great way to show that you’re grateful for their help. You can also recognize people who help you out on social media by mentioning them by name on Twitter, or tagging them in a photo on Facebook.

5. Evaluate the Volunteer

Evaluation is one step that many volunteer programs skip, but it’s essential for developing an effective program. Whether you utilize a printed or online survey, gathering information from volunteers about the quality of their experience and how they feel about it can help you identify problem areas. You should also compare the outcomes of your volunteer engagement with the goals that you set forward in your volunteer program plan. By looking at surveys of both volunteers and staff, you may be able to determine exactly why things did (or didn’t) go according right, and make whatever changes you need to revise your volunteer program plan. And so the process starts all over again.

What do you think about these points? How do you make sure that your volunteer program is successful?

If you would like to learn more about how to effectively manage volunteers, the Excellence in Volunteer Management Training Series is a great way to do just that.

The Takeaway is a series of blog posts with helpful tips and resources shared at the workshops presented by The Volunteer Center of Northwest Suburban Chicago. For more information on TVC’s workshops and trainings, including a schedule of upcoming events, visit our website.

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