Help

One of the things I spend a lot of time doing at my job in association management is getting volunteers to do things for free. Some people call it “volunteer management,” while other people call it herding cats. Still, the practice warrants some attention.

Before we get started, let me explain why volunteer management is increasingly applicable. More and more, we’re seeing organizations shy away from traditional hierarchies. While this leads to more flexibility, it also puts the onus on individuals to contribute freely of their time while at work. Additionally, networking activities often revolve around volunteer activities. In my book, a volunteer is anyone who is willing to help you who isn’t obligated to do so. So knowing the basics of managing them is a good thing to know—and it will probably get lots more important in the coming years.

In a nutshell, here’s what you need to know to manage volunteers:

Planning
This is essential when working with volunteers. Lately, team-based styles and “agile development” have made the term a little icky. But you need to have at least an outline of what’s going to happen if you want people to contribute. Think about it: you have a couple hours a week to help a group with a project on a voluntary basis. The dude or dudette in charge says, “Will you do x for us?” Chances are, if you have time and know how you’ll do it.

However, what if they say, “I was wondering if you would kind of figure out what needs to be done. You could talk to whats-his-name and then we’ll meet about it in six months,” you might find yourself making some lovely hair-washing excuses to get out of the job. Krug’s book “Don’t Make Me Think,” though applied to website usability, applies in spades to the practice of volunteer management. People will help you, just don’t make them carry the world on their shoulders if they’re not interested.

Recruitment
Recruitment is the simplest part. If you’re involved in something worthwhile and you make people feel useful, they will volunteer. If you’ve got a problem getting people to volunteer, here are some things that you can work on:

Did you actually ask? Surprisingly, people from all kinds of organizations could have volunteers out their ears if they would walk up to someone and say, “we need x, will you do it?” Try not to be shy about it. If the person isn’t interested they will tell you. But more often people will step up to the plate.

Are you being a martyr? I’ve found that sometimes leaders, having been in place for a long time, identify unhealthily with the position. They then say the right things about wanting to step back but they do subconscious (benefit of the doubt) manipulation and never actually empower anyone to take over. The people who are being sort-of asked to volunteer realize they are sort-of being asked and decline, quite reasonably. So, if you are a martyr, take a deep breath and let go. If your organization is being run by a martyr, realize that fact and work with it. If people realize what’s going on, then this situation can be worked through.

Not enough stakeholders, period? You have to have a certain core group in order to have enough volunteers to do anything. Voluntarism is an interesting statistical function, driven by self-selection—a small group of people do the work for the larger group (as indicated by the STP phenomenon: Same Ten People). If you don’t have enough people to generate the pool of volunteers, adjust your standards and do less. You’ll thank me for it.

Orientation and Training
Volunteers have to know what they’re doing. They are not typically dumb or lazy, although we see that kind all over, don’t we? No, volunteers have very limited time. Remember, these people have 2.5 kids, a dog, and a business trip twice a month. So, they need to know, upfront, what you’re asking them to do.

Some of the volunteer literature talks about having forms and policies, yada yada and blah blah blah. I take a minimalist approach on the forms and so forth. But you should make sure people know what their job is, and where it stops and ends boundary-wise, and what the timeframe is. If the job is simple and involves simple tasks, tell them. If it’s more complex and you need them to do some judgment calls, tell them that as well. As long as we all know, everything goes much more smoothly.

Supervision and Evaluation
I have to tell you about this one, although it could have some negative overtones. Basically, though, it’s very helpful. The leader—and remember this can be delegated—should sit down regularly (or telephone or IM) with the volunteer. Refer back to the agreements everyone’s made at the beginning, and just maintain singing from the same hymnsheet. That’s it. If you integrate regular debriefs, things will get lots better for everyone.

And finally…

Recognition
Remember, a volunteer doesn’t get paid with money. But they obviously need some kind of remuneration. Usually interaction with others, gaining important contacts, doing good in the world, these are things that make volunteers tick. But it’s important to give awards, praise people, give thank you notes, small things that help keep morale up when you’ve stayed up till 2 am preparing a committee report.

These steps should help everyone with their volunteer activities, whether a leader or a volunteer, or both! Feel free to let me know in the comments what your experiences have been with volunteering–and what makes you volunteer or quit a group for whom you have volunteered.

Nick Senzee works for a professional association in metro Washington, DC. You can find him online at Nick’s Book Blog.

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