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Phil's Journal

by Philip B. Crosby

The Art of Managing Volunteers

A national emphasis on volunteering has been initiated by the U.S. government. Three ex-presidents joined the current one in making certain that everyone got the message. Throughout the world, organizations are becoming even more interested in the value of finding unpaid help. Much of this is driven by reduced content in government and personal budgets. The question is how to get as much, or more, for less. The idea offers a wonderful solution: The volunteers have something useful to do, the organizations get their work done, the clients are well taken care of and everyone is happy.

Dream on. The history of volunteer labor is not very encouraging. Everyone wants it to happen, everyone is enthused and puts forth the most positive vibrations. Yet volunteerism usually does not produce wonderful results. The reason for this lack of desired success rests in the lack of proper management. Good intentions do not necessarily produce good results. Managing volunteers can be the most difficult of all jobs; yet it can be powerfully rewarding if done properly. Doing it properly requires four actions.

Selection -- The U.S. military is all "volunteer," which means that its people are not drafted. And, of course, everyone gets paid, and many make it a career. So it is different from the kind of volunteer that concerns us. But there is a great lesson here. The military sets a foundation for its members in that they must have graduated from high school (GEDs allowed only at certain times), and be in good health. This assures that they are dealing with people who have basic educational skills, and have stuck with a project for several years.

Most organizations are so happy to have help that they take anyone who walks up to the desk. Yet the future relationship can be established right at that moment. We have to determine that they are really interested in helping rather than just wanting a place to park for a while. Those who know the organization best need to prepare a few questions that will reveal the answer. This means that those who can recognize potential and dedication when they see it should interview the prospective volunteers. Many leave this to those on the bottom of the organizational chart who have the least amount of experience. The logic for this is that all volunteers are worthwhile. This is not true.

Orientation -- One of the big failings of the business world is that new employees are not made familiar with the organization, its culture, its systems, its goals, its way of working. They are just dumped in and must learn from the person at the next station. Nonprofits learn this wrong practice from their business associates. Most nonprofits have high-level businesspeople on their boards, and they traditionally do not give much thought to people, particularly at the lower levels. They say they do, but their emphasis is on finance and systems.

Actually, time spent in a well-planned and complete orientation is paid back over and over. The main reason people leave work, school, volunteer assignments and other situations is because they do not feel they belong. When you don't know what is going on, or who is doing it, you don't feel a part of the place. It is that simple.

Real Work -- Volunteers are real people who want to do real work, something that actually has to do with making the organization successful in its mission. They must have the feeling that they are making a contribution, and that feeling must come from real accomplishments. This means that the jobs in an organization should be examined to identify those that can be done by a volunteer individually or perhaps be shared with others, and which jobs can use a volunteer's assistance.

Work should be scheduled, and performance should be reviewed. This doesn't have to be a hard-nosed discussion, but the volunteer should be given the effect of their participation: What happens if they don't show up when scheduled? What happens if they goof off? and What are the consequences if they don't pay attention to accuracy and courtesy? Just because they are working for free, they cannot be excused for being a burden to the community. The fact that performance reviews are part of the deal should be made clear up front. At that time, the volunteer should be asked to list any objectives. The fulfillment of those objectives serves the basis for the evaluation.

Recognition -- Praise volunteers properly, and you will always have a supply of useful, reliable people. Make recognition obvious with a pin, jacket, wall plaque or some other well-thought-out symbol. Perfect attendance and other measurable criteria are not hard to determine. If we are going to have "Beacon" awards, let the volunteers vote in the selection. Management should never select any winners.

All of us who work came to our workplace voluntarily because we wanted to work there. We have anchors inside the organization; we belong and can prove it. Volunteers can wander about and not know where they belong, and the whole point behind volunteering is the desire to belong.

Don't forget that.

E-mail me at philcros@AOL.com or visit www.philipcrosby.com.


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