Rethinking Engaging Volunteers

Volunteers are essential to nonprofit organizations, but they can only contribute to an agency’s services when their role has been thought through and fully developed. Of course, over time and with experience, organizations should make appropriate changes in the roles played by volunteers.

One of the most common questions heard in the halls of nonprofits is, “Why can’t we get a volunteer to do it?” The underlying thought is that if a volunteer can do a specific task, then he or she can relieve the staff of that responsibility. One might refer to this way of engaging volunteers as an “incremental approach” in which each challenge is faced with a stopgap measure to meet the needs of clients. It is an ad hoc approach to engaging volunteers: they are sought just to fill a void – to serve as a “band aid” to deal with gaps in service provided by the staff in the organization.

For example, a day center for people with Alzheimer’s disease has developed a system for transporting the clients to and from the center each day. Volunteers provide this transportation and donate the cost of gas for the trips. The agency envisions that using volunteers this way will save them and their clients the cost of a taxi service.

However, the system is not functioning well; one reason is that the agency has never developed criteria for selecting volunteers and then evaluating their performance. Given that the volunteers are entrusted with the welfare of the clients as they travel together from their homes to the agency, it is essential that the volunteers be excellent drivers. They should also be familiar with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and be able to deal with the clients compassionately and knowledgeably.

Because the agency has failed to screen its volunteers, has not developed a job description outlining their responsibilities, and has not provided an orientation about clients’ needs and how the agency serves them, it is now confronting several serious issues relating to the use of volunteers. The volunteers just continue providing services year after year, without guidance or specialized knowledge.

Recently the center’s director learned that one of the drivers has a problem with cataracts and can barely see while she is on the road. This immediately raised a red flag for the professional staff, and they asked themselves how they should deal with this volunteer. She is 82 years old and in her 19th year of driving, and even though she is sometimes tired she looks forward to making the daily trips. This task forces her to leave her house in the morning, and she would often run errands in between the two trips. Her volunteering provides structure for her daily schedule and keeps her busy.

Yet there was neither a job description for her nor a periodic review of her performance as a driver. The agency had no built-in system for reviewing her status and engaging her in a discussion about her continuing to volunteer for the nonprofit. The only option now was to request a special meeting with her to talk about her present situation. Of course, the center staff was concerned about her response to being told that she could not drive until after her recuperation from cataract surgery.

The tense moments between the center director and the volunteer could have been lessened if there had been a volunteer manual requiring a semi-annual or annual performance review. This review would have provided the opportunity to discuss the volunteer’s age, performance, and ability to continue driving clients. This conversation might still have been difficult, but having an ongoing review process would have given it structure as part of the regular assessment of all volunteers. This particular volunteer would not have felt singled out as having a problem.

This example shows the need for well-thought-out, structured volunteer programs. The staff of an organization has to be clear about the role volunteers can play within the agency. One staff person, or even a volunteer, needs to have the responsibilities of a volunteer coordinator. This person is responsible for working out the potential roles for volunteers in the organization and developing job descriptions for them in consultation with the other professionals responsible for the delivery of services.

Ongoing meetings between the volunteer and his or her supervisor would give both of them an opportunity to discuss the volunteer’s placement and response to work, as well as to appraise his or her performance. These meetings are used to support the volunteers and to provide positive feedback, as well as to discuss areas in which they need support and assistance in developing their knowledge and skills in performing their tasks. In the example discussed earlier, such a meeting would have provided the opportunity for the volunteer to discuss her relationship to her clients in general and her vision difficulties in particular. The supervisor and volunteer could have discussed the need for her to take a leave of absence so she could attend to her health issues.

The more time and effort spent in structuring the volunteer program correctly, the more smoothly it will be implemented. In addition to crafting volunteer assignments, the volunteer program should also provide support, supervision, and assessment of volunteer performance to ensure that the organization functions effectively and efficiently.

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