Managing Volunteers: Making the Most of a Valuable Resource

A significant number of non-profit organizations in voluntary organizations around the world recruit and use volunteers to deliver vital services to their clients. Engaging volunteers is not just a matter of enlisting people and assigning them to various tasks. In order for there to be an effective and efficient use of volunteers it is important for the agency to plan for their training, assignments, and ongoing supervision, as well as, developing a way to acknowledge their contribution.

In times of limited resources and increased requests for services board members often think that engaging volunteers to “fill in the gaps” is a way to go in order to maintain the agency’s functioning. When we consider the use of volunteers it is necessary to recognize not only the needs of the clients who we are serving and the organization providing the services, but also the volunteers who are making a valuable contribution by giving generously of their time. There are a number of important steps that have to be followed in setting up and maintaining a volunteer program that will reflect the quality and expertise of the organization as well as meet the volunteers’ needs.

  1. Defining the Volunteer Position. The first step is for the organization’s board members and profession leadership to define the specific role(s) volunteers will play in providing services. Volunteers can be used in various roles throughout most organizations, however, it is imperative that each role be clearly defined and job descriptions be developed so both the volunteers and the agency’s staff members know what is expected of each other. One approach to dealing with this issue is to establish a “Volunteer Committee” of the board of directors.
  2. Recruiting the Volunteers. A process needs to be put in place and implemented that provides for the recruitment of volunteers including the advertising the need for volunteers; distributing application forms; interviewing the applicants; and notifying those who are accepted and those who are not accepted by the organization.
  3. Training the Volunteers. Once the volunteers are selected they need to receive information and training about their responsibilities. There should be a clear understanding of what will be expected of them in their volunteer roles. Misunderstandings can develop when volunteers have not received appropriate training or when they expect to be doing a job and have not received enough background information to perform the tasks satisfactorily. This can lead to a situation where both the volunteers and the paid staff they work with are both frustrated because each has a different perception of what is expected of the volunteer role.
  4. Supervising and Continuing Training of the Volunteers. Not only is it important for the volunteers to receive an orientation and training for their role in the organization, but there also needs to be on-going supervision so they can receive feedback about their performance. One aspect of the supervisory process is to have their efforts evaluate and a second aspect is to provide the volunteers with additional in-service training through both a supervisory relationship as well as on-going seminars. The supervision of volunteers can be conducted through a relationship with a specific supervisor or it can be through a group supervisory process. This depends on the nature of the agency’s work and the available resources.
  5. Recognizing the Volunteers’ Efforts. One of the most important aspects of the agency’s relationship with its volunteers is recognizing the important contribution they make to services provided to the community. There are many different ways of acknowledging the volunteers and what they do for the community by participating in the agency’s providing needed services. It does not matter whether the volunteer is assisting the administrative staff in the “back office functions” or plays a role in direct service to clients. In either case the volunteer makes him/herself available and gives of her time to strengthen the agency and the community. There are many ways to acknowledge these efforts and it is important for the organization to integrate recognizing the volunteers’ contribution into their volunteer program. Examples of volunteer recognition are: a volunteer luncheon; a day trip to an interesting place; the awarding of certificates of appreciation; etc.
  6. Reporting to the Board of Directors. It is imperative that the board of the agency have an understanding of the valuable role volunteers play in the delivery of services to the community. In addition to the establishment of a volunteer committee that sets the policies guiding the program and provides oversight it is important for there to be an annual reporting of the impact of the program on the organization. Although this can be accomplished through a written report an oral presentation by the volunteer chair of the committee and one of the active volunteers can have a greater impact on the board than a written document.

It should be obvious from the steps above that volunteers are a valuable resource and can make a difference in the agency’s provision of services to the community. In order for volunteers to be effective in their roles organizations have to make a commitment and invest in the program. Volunteers can make a valuable contribution and the more the organization invests in planning and implementing the program the greater will be the return, in terms of the quality of the volunteers’ efforts on behalf of the organization and its clients.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.