I had written this originally to accompany a talk I had given to a club in Toronto. My goal had been to give individuals who hadn't volunteered before suggestions for what to look for in organizations they might consider volunteering with.
I focused on the fact that volunteering is a two way street: The volunteer is expected to provide their time, skills, efforts and commitment. The prospective volunteer has every right to expect a few important things from the charitable organizations with which they work. Here's what I suggested the volunteer candidates seek out:
Respect for The Volunteer’s Time I’ve always held that you can judge what it will be like to work for an employer by the interview process and how it’s managed. The same goes for volunteering. The way a charitable organization treats its candidates during the interview process will give the potential volunteer a glimpse of what it’s like to work with them. Charities that cancel interviews, show up late and seem harried or disorganized – probably are. It’s the perfect time for the volunteer to ask themselves whether they’ll thrive in their chaos - or be frustrated by it.
I still remember my first volunteer interview for a help hotline in 2001. The Executive Director showed up 15 minutes late, told me about the volunteer who had just quit and shared her concern about the sustainability of the organization. It was more than enough for me to go back to the ads in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (the physical paper – we actually used that back then!)
Volunteer Orientation and Training
Organizations that maximize the experience for both their benefit and that of volunteers have a process for introducing them to their services, clients and roles. They offer specific training for the tasks they are asking volunteers to complete. Big organizations as well as small ones can do this. Volunteer orientations don’t have to be fancy and costly -just informative, motivating and consistent.
Having a process like this also indicates a strategically wise organization. If you’re recruiting and bringing volunteers onboard, it’s safe to assume you want them to be able to understand the value of what they’re being asked to do. Smart and efficient organizations are like that.
The second and perhaps more strategic aspect is that volunteers represent the future and lifeblood of charitable organizations. Volunteers become donors, board members and perhaps, most importantly, they become a prime source of PR. The old adage applies: A bad experience travels to at least 10. If you provide a great experience, that gets amplified as well.
Volunteer Tracking and Management Systems
An obvious best practice for organizations is tracking volunteer hours, quantifying that into specific dollars and evaluating the work of their volunteers. Volunteers – whether they’re there purely to “do something good” or are eager to build marketable skills - benefit when they get feedback around strengths and weaknesses (sorry, I meant “opportunities”). The work they’re doing may be testing them with new challenges to help them through the process of learning a skill.
From a strategic perspective, organizations that track volunteer attendance, quantify hours and evaluate performance, are usually getting funding for a program or for volunteers. They’re paying attention and that’s a good thing for all involved.
Respect for Your Boundaries
Volunteers are often asked to hit goals particularly when it comes to fundraising. It’s critical that the charitable organization remembers that volunteers are just that. They’re not a paid sales force. They’re not employees.
Be wary of organizations looking to pounce on your Rolodex within minutes of discussing the traffic you hit on the way over. OK, I’m dating myself – who uses a Rolodex these days? Anyway, asking for contacts, fundraising ideas and connections once is on the level. It’s fine to be assertive and follow up. But three times really isn’t the charm. And four times is pushing well beyond.
Pressuring volunteers to provide contacts, hit fundraising numbers (unless they’re involved in a specific fundraising event like a ride or run) or “closing them” on their involvement though sales techniques – are a huge no no.
Recognition and Appreciation
We all know that volunteers don’t step up just to get recognized or awarded. But hey, it doesn’t hurt to be appreciated. The fun thing about recognition is that it comes in so many shapes and sizes.
It’s great to say thank you for simply doing what you do. Nothing feels better than hearing your name with THANK YOU attached to it. This can and should happen as often as possible.
And then, there’s the Big Thank You event (also commonly known as Volunteer Appreciation Night or Dinner). I’ve always been a fan of organizations that take the time to do something like this every year or even two times a year. These don’t need to be big, expensive or splashy – just sincere.
One final opportunity that truly shows the organization is listening is sending the volunteer to a specific event or conference of interest. For example, if you’re working with an advocacy based organization, sending a volunteer with a specific policy interest to a briefing may be worth its weight in gold. It’s an absolute win-win for the organization: the volunteer is thrilled to go on behalf of the charity and the organization is well represented and gets the valuable info (oh, and no staff time used either – not bad).
If you're a volunteer reading this and considering opportunities or an organization trying to up your game, I hope these tips have been helpful. If you're on the other side - a charitable organization looking to attract great talent, I hope these give you some thoughts about how to make your volunteer experience a great two way experience.
I welcome your thoughts, feedback and counterpoints.
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