I love that question and have worked on volunteer development quite a lot with organizations so there are a couple of things to think about. One mistake that I see a lot with organizations is that they have people that are interested in volunteering with the organization and it’s an open cattle call for whomever would like to become a volunteer. They’ll invite everyone in to come and hang out and volunteer with the organization, even if they don’t have anything for the person to do. What this creates is a negative experience.
Let’s say I’m a volunteer and I happen to be, let’s say, an accountant by trade. You learn that I’m an accountant. You assume that I want to do accounting stuff. I don’t want to do accounting stuff because I do that every day. I want to pet the goats or whatever it is that you’ve happened to be doing. I want to interact with the clients or I want to go stock shelves or whatever. Understanding what volunteer opportunities organically exist within the organization without going in and unnaturally creating a bunch of things that don’t need to be done. Then I suggest having conversations or, preferably, a more formal intake process where you find out from the volunteer what it is they want to do – where is the intersection of their skills and passions, or if you’d want to focus just on passion and you offer development opportunities for them to come in and learn about what it is that your organization does. When you allow individuals an opportunity to truly engage with your mission, they’re more likely to hang around. Not only are they more likely to hang around, but I have seen people who will give first of their time before they give their money because they want to come in as a volunteer and see what it’s like behind the curtain before opening their wallets.
I know my wife and I have both done this where we volunteered with an organization to see what’s going on, to get a feel for what is the culture, what’s their mission, how do they treat people and what is it they actually do before we started giving money. In some cases, we engaged much more deeply with organizations by serving as board members after we were satisfied with what we saw as everyday, ordinary volunteers.
I think you do treat volunteers like an employee, and here’s what I mean by that. I’m a firm believer in creating job descriptions. So on the front end, I said, you’ve got to figure out what opportunities there are for volunteers. Then once you figure that out, craft a job description for that, formalize the role in creating these hard edges, this framework to work within. For me, I find that it’s just a matter of treating the volunteer with dignity and respect and being respectful with their time and their effort. They could choose to go do something else, but they’re choosing to be here. If you put these hard edges on what it is they’re doing, why they’re doing it, how they’re doing it with whom and who their supervisor is, then you’re creating an environment where they can come in and do the job and enjoy their experience. Creating job descriptions that are clean, clear, and concise. It doesn’t have to be six pages long. Clean, clear, and concise. I find that there has to be a process for volunteers so that you’re not doing the open cattle call. Where do you source volunteers? If you’re looking for a certain type of person, where do they live or work and play and how can you go there? How do you select them? Is anyone good because they can fog a mirror and they’ve got a heartbeat? Is that good enough? Are you looking for a specific person? Do they have to fill out an application, per se? Is there any interviewing? Are you doing background checks, credit, criminal, DMV checks. If, for example, you’re a child-serving organization, you need to be extremely careful who you are allowing into your organization. What sort of selection process are you taking these folks through? Is there any orientation to where you get an opportunity to sit down, knee-to-knee or virtually and get to know them and indoctrinate them into the culture of your organization, teaching them about why you do what you do, how you do it, and to what end you do what you do, and present them with any initial training they may need? If it’s a specialized role and you invite them in and just sort of say, “okay, congratulations, you made it, good luck, sink or swim.” Then again, you’re allowing someone in to have a very poor experience and they’re not going to be happy. And that, unfortunately, is a missed opportunity. I call these various steps I’ve outlined “filters”, so having these filters in place, where do you source people? How do you select them? How do you onboard and orient them? What initial training do you give them? When do you give them feedback? How often do you give them feedback? Who gives them feedback? Is there any opportunity for development within the organization to where maybe they start as a singular volunteer and they evolve into the volunteer coordinator role where they’re overseeing all volunteers and might have an opportunity to join a leadership board as a trial to where they might later be considered for your full governance board. Are there any opportunities within the organization in a paid role? Having this sort of concept mapped out and these processes mapped out, these filters thought out, for me, these are some best practices when considering how to best bring on volunteers and how to steward them properly within your organization so that everyone gets what they want and need from the experience.