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Volunteer Management and Environs

Volunteer Management and Environs
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    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:

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    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:

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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