Managing Volunteers

Over the past 2 years I have volunteered both as a committee member and as unpaid labour for four different and diverse organisations. And no, based on these four examples, I am not an expert on volunteering, but I can see clear similarities between these “not for profit” organisations and my working paid life. Volunteer organisations could well learn from the good practice within the “for profit” organisations on how get the best from the people that they have little control in selecting!

By their nature, volunteers are usually a self-selecting group from within a small pool of local people. There is often the feeling that volunteers must be treated differently, as they are giving up their time to help out. Do remember, in just the same way that paid employment is not all about the money and often about the enjoyment of the job, volunteers are the same, in fact, probably more so! It is a two-way street; you are each helping each other out!

So how to get the best out of these individuals who give up their time to do something for nothing? Keeping staff happy and well-motivated, whether paid or not, will ensure that both types of organisations get their objectives fulfilled.

Best practice says that starting with a good foundation such as a job description with clear boundaries and responsibilities, including who is accountable, whom they should consult and who needs to be informed will increase a person’s comfort zone. Within the job description, tasks which are supposed to be performed, to what standard and where to find those standards should be included.

Knowing when a task or job is to be completed also brings clarity and knowing what action to take if the task is completed ahead of time or if it is taking longer than estimated should also be explained. Open and clear access to any Health and Safety policies with good risk and opportunity assessment is also essential.

Feedback is important and an informal appraisal as to how they are getting on will increase motivation if they are doing well, and allow management to correct any issues before they get out of hand. Asking your volunteer how they perceive the organisation to be working and any ideas they may have will also increase engagement. If you can’t implement an idea, then make sure you explain why.

Finally, a simple list of dos: accentuate the positive and be liberal with praise, compliment frequently, sincerely and in public, greet people by using their names, be interested in them as people, including families, hobbies and special interests. Give credit where credit is due and don’t steal their thunder. Ask, “How can I help?” Give appropriate challenges, people are bored when they are not challenged and Listen! Listen! Listen! And don’t: underestimate potential, remove their reward, show a lack of confidence in them, expect immediate results, or not support them, magnify their mistakes and ignore their success.

And finally, don’t understate the role they play and don’t treat the task more importantly than the person.

Lyn Mason

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