Coping for success

Andy Fryar October 1, 2005 4
Coping for success


by OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar

The more I have the opportunity to meet with Volunteer Program Managers from a wide range of settings and backgrounds, the more I appreciate just how much our profession continues to grow and evolve.

Volunteering is changing, and as a result so too are volunteer management practices. Our jobs today are more often dictated by increased levels of paperwork, the necessity to meet legislative requirements and greater amounts of both accountability and reporting, than they are coordinating and supporting the direct efforts of volunteers. In short, we seem to have far more balls in the air today than ever before.

Compound this with other common problems experienced in our sector such as a lack of top level support, few resources and the incredible number of managers undertaking multiple jobs, and it is clear to see that the picture being painted is not always one of sunshine and roses!

With all of these factors in play comes the inevitable situation whereby volunteer program managers have to do more with less – and with this arises greater levels of both stress and anxiety. Is this perhaps one of the reasons we have such a high turnover of personnel in this field?

Sadly, for many of us, our jobs become nothing more than a vicious cycle of ‘busy work’, allowing little time for personal space, or at the very least, the opportunity to plan a way of escaping the cycle in which they find themselves.

So what are some of the ways volunteer program managers can overcome this cycle of stress and find ways to succeed under the pressure being applied by modern day volunteerism?

Let me suggest a few.

Take care of yourself .first

We are of little use to others if we are not able to think clearly under pressure or to cope with the workload our jobs might bring. Being fit and healthy is an important element to ensuring we feel in control of our situation. A regular exercise regime, a good diet and ensuring that you receive adequate sleep each night are easy steps to maintaining your peace of mind.

Have a life outside of work

The natural temptation when faced with an increasingly busy workload is to work both longer and harder in order to clear the ‘to do’ list on your desk, so having interests outside of work are critical to ensuring that your work life doesn’t become your only life! Holiday time with your family, playing sport, taking up a hobby or undertaking volunteer work yourself in another agency are all great ways to ensure balance in your life.

Practice what you preach

It’s amazing how few managers utilise volunteers in the direct support of their position. Entrusting volunteer team members with roles such as interviewing, orientating, supporting and training new volunteers is a great way to find those few extra hours each week to recharge the batteries and think strategically.

Study time management strategies

The have been voluminous amounts of information written about the many different aspects of time management. Prudent volunteer managers will make the time to research some of these and implement at least a few simple strategies.

Understand the power of one

A critical element in taking back control is to understand the power of a single minute, and how the accumulated effect of saving single minutes, through the rearrangement of work practices, can pave a way forward in developing coping mechanisms. For instance, if we can rearrange our work practices to save just one minute an hour, we can free up an accumulated amount of four working days a year in which we can be doing other things.

Find a mentor

Take the time to seek out and find yourself a mentor. It’s unlikely someone will come knocking on your door with the offer, so it’s up to you to identify someone you think would be appropriate, someone whose opinion you trust and someone who you believe will tell it to you straight. Then all you need to do is ask them!


Meeting with other volunteer program managers – either in your own city, or across the world via the internet is a great strategy for retaining your sanity! Not only will you find it therapeutic to speak to others in the same field, you’ll also be encouraged to know you are not the only person experiencing the frustrations you are faced with.

Say NO!

It’s a small word but probably the most important one you’ll ever need to learn to speak. By nature many volunteer managers want to help in any way they can. In itself this is a great quality, but if the result is increased stress for you and your team, then you need to take control. After all if all your supervisors or clients ever hear is ‘yes’, what indication do they have that your not coping?

Be pro-active!

Whatever methods you put into place it is important to understand these are critical for the wellbeing of both your program and your own state of mind. If you do nothing – then nothing will change, so it is important to put into play at least one small strategy should you find yourself trapped in a situation where everything feels out of control.

Why a hot topic?

Finally, some of you may be asking ‘why is this a hot topic?’, and I’d like to suggest two reasons.

Firstly, it is not getting any better ! As a general rule, the increased utilisation and focus on volunteering over recent years has not had a corresponding increase in the amount of staffing or resources allocated to volunteer department. The pessimist in me says it won’t get any better any time soon either, so therefore it is critical we ourselves start to develop strategies to work differently.

The second reason I think this topic is worthy of hot topic status is because many volunteer program managers today seem to have reached a point where they now accept these incredibly busy and unrealistic work schedules as the norm!

In summary

This essay has offered several simple suggestions about ways volunteer program managers can better take control in those situations where they feel overwhelmed by their circumstances.

While we hope these ideas might be helpful to many of you, it is by no means definitive, so why not share your own successes and coping strategies with other readers?

  • Do you agree managers are working under more pressure than ever before?
  • What coping mechanisms have you tried that worked?
  • What have you tried that didn’t work?
  • Feel free to share your story



  1. ozvpm_andy April 11, 2012 at 11:06 am - Reply

    Response posted on 20th October, 2005 by Jeni Monks, Co-ordinator of Volunteers and Community Partnerships, SHINE for Kids

    Practice what you preach and Be pro-active!

    Before going on holidays, I made sure my desk was clear, everything was up to date. My agenda was set, time frames were planned out “in my mind” and I was looking forward to a dynamic quarter. I had a hit list of new initiatives that I wanted to explore upon my return.

    Post holiday- Day 1: I was told that my A dministration A ssistant had resigned and her last day was in 3 days time. In addition, I was told that the new child care centre would open at Windsor in 2 months – and they needed 25 volunteers (with security clearances) by then. No problem, I can cope, I will have to cope. A fter all, how hard can it be, I already have 2 out of the 25 volunteers needed! Nothing like crisis management from above to get the adrenalin rushing. All that is required is for me to totally rewrite my plan for this quarter agenda. My frustration with this, was, knowing that I would now have to spend 98% of this quarter involved in volunteer program management, as opposed to volunteer program leadership. And, it is the leadership aspect which was being squashed in the last minute agenda rewrite and be lost under paper shuffling responsibilities. Isn’t that always the way?

    Not only was my admin worker leaving but “the powers that be” have decided to reassess the position- and maybe rework the admin job description. In the meantime, I would have to do all my own admin, until “the temp” came on board to fill the role. The actual admin position was not likely to be advertised until 3 months later. I could feel the stress rise within me.

    My mind was filled with frustration, as I envisioned how the next few months would pan out. First there would be hand over from the departing worker of volunteer program admin tasks back over to me, and then, hand over from me to the temp, and finally, another hand over when the permanent person came on board. I was torn, all the wonderful initiatives I had on my agenda disappeared before my eyes and were replaced with paper shuffling, database management, and general volunteer process management. Don’t get me wrong I don’t hate paperwork , or mind taking care of routine volunteer applications , and “red tape”.Yes, it is a bit boring, but it is more about wasting my talents, and skills, on routine tasks that fill me with frustration when I could be getting on with leadership tasks which ultimately ensure the organisation thrives.

    The organisation that I work for works with children and volunteers who go into NSW prisons so the “red tape” is quite intensive, and always needs to be urgently processed, before our volunteers can start in their roles. Naturally, just at a time when the “paperwork” was all my problem -it was also a time period where I interviewed record number of volunteers , and thus , the paperwork levels were extremely high as well. You could say a catch 22. On top of that, the temp did not materialise until 2 months later. Not Happy Jan!

    And by that time- I was drowning in frustration and over work- my “hit list of new initiatives that I wanted to explore” was just a distant memory and lost at the bottom of my in-tray which then stood at about 1 foot high. I was busy, oh so busy, but the required volunteers materialised and the volunteer program flourished, the organisation was delighted with my recruitment success and so the new child care centre opened on time, but I was ready to crack.

    Along the way I was thinking about how to avoid this happening again. I recognise the circumstances were exceptional, but nevertheless, I am determined to avoid the situation occurring again. As I thought about which aspects of my role I could delegate to volunteers I started to make a list. Then I started to think about what more attractive tasks I could add to the list to make the role more fulfilling. What skills would the volunteers need to have etc and slowly the profile of the appropriate volunteer was emerging. How many hours would each volunteer need to work, how often, etc- you know the drill . I decided 2 volunteers, once a week, at least 5 hours a day.

    As the list took shape I started to think about which tasks I had historically avoid ed delegating and why ? Was it because I have a control fetish, or the need for accountability, or certainty that the essential jobs were getting done with the urgency that they required ? Naturally the reasons for my reluctance to delegate were a mixture of all these aspects. I decided it was worth taking the time to think through all the complexities of various issues (which had historically stopped me from utilising volunteers for these tasks) and present them as simple checklists which performed multiple functions with relevant information for all the key players (eg me, admin officer and both volunteers) to view at a glance.

    I set out to develop clear accountability checklist which were fast for me to review at the end of each day; covered mandatory elements; could act as a built in ongoing status or progress report s for the other volunteer to refer to a moments notice; allowed the volunteers to manage their own day; breaking down tasks into primary, secondary and tertiary priorities.

    At the end of this process I had created simple checklists which both satisfied my need for ongoing continuity and , in turn , saited my control fetish that key tasks would indeed get done in a timely manner without relying on verbal conversations. I’m not saying I’m not going to talk to the volunteers, but I needed to ensure we could communicate with each other at times when I was off site on their volunteers day, and also know, that the volunteers themselves knew what tasks to get on with in my absence.

    Yes this required a lot of time, and planning on my part, but the freed up time I now find myself with allows me to once again reach for “my hit list of new initiatives that I wanted to explore”.

    My boss was worried, she could see how overworked I was, and was worried that I might resign. She supported my efforts to delegate volunteer program administration to volunteers. When I saw the Volunteer Magnet Tour advertised I was delighted at how timely it was ” Motivating and magnetising yourself first! “. Great workshop and c ertainly the ideas discussed supported my own experience and solution to the problem. The next few months will of course unveil how well my strategy has panned out. as with most volunteer roles, the success , as we all know, often depends on the appropriate volunteer being placed in the position and realistic expectations of the role itself.

    As Andy said ” It’s amazing how few managers utilise volunteers in the direct support of their position. Entrusting volunteer team members with roles such as interviewing, orientating, supporting and training new volunteers is a great way to find those few extra hours each week to recharge the batteries and think strategically. “

  2. ozvpm_andy April 11, 2012 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Response posted on October 8th 2005 by Rosie Williams, Team Leader, Port Family Services, Uniting Care Wesley, Port Adelaide, Australia

    Thank you for this months hot topic, it seems to be an issue that is not going away any time soon!

    Although what you have suggested may seem common sense to most it is interesting how easy it is to let things slip. Having a balance between home and work for example is something that I did not achieved until rather recently and I am paying for it now that I am approaching the upper years of 40 and given that I started full time work the day that I turned fifteen I now find that I am real tired and if I had a chose I would not work any more at all. The point being I think (rather than giving the impression of poor me!), is that if we are in for the long haul, which most of us are, then we just have to develop strategies to take care of ourselves and to find a balance between work and home as you have suggested.

    I agree with you about the benefits of networking. It is usually networking that falls off our busy lists and seems to be the thing that we are willing to let go and do without. I have found that if you find a good group it does help to be involved with mind like people who are trying to do the same kind of things as you with the same kind of restraints. Over the years I have been blessed with a range of really great colleagues from a wide range of organisations in the northern suburbs of Adelaide. Together we successfully undertook a variety of collaborative and joint projects for example training for volunteers, recruitment and advertising campaigns, sharing of resources and documentation, policies and so on. Often work that is shared is work that is halved!

    I also agree that saying NO can be hard, especially if you are tying to build the credibility of a volunteer program in an area where volunteering is not the core business. It is the old adage that the person who is the busiest is the one that we will ask to do more because we know that we can rely on them and that they will do a good job. It can be really hard to say NO to a manager or a person of authority. I find that those who are asking often have very little understanding about what we do in a day and all that is involved in managing volunteers. One strategy may be to write up on the white board all your current projects and priorities and ask the boss or the person doing the asking to pick which one that can go so that you can take on their request. See what happens! (I think I got that from Steve Coveys Seven Habits)

    Finding a Mentor for me has been quite a difficult task unless I pay lots of money to a professional. “Just asking” has not really worked all that well for me. People are so busy that they find it hard to fit in and although I have been looking for several years now I have not found someone that has lasted more that a few months. (maybe I burn them out?) So if there is anyone out there who has some suggestions about this I would welcome them.

    Finally what does not work for me is

    * trying to be superwoman

    * trying to do things perfectly

    * the belief that I need to do it all myself rather than delegating (because really no one can do it as well as I can!)

    * wasting time on things I can not impact or change

    * not taking holidays when they are due and in fact getting paid out for holidays rather than taking them

    * coming in to work when I really should have stayed home because I ‘think I am sick’

    * accumulating so much overtime there is no way this century (or my life time really) I will ever get an opportunity to take it off

    * getting caught up with the office complainers and gossipers

    * spending lots of time and engery on the 20 percent of staff who are troublesome

    * being unrealistic about what I can achieve

    * clearing my ‘to do’ list before I go home

    Thanks for listening!

  3. ozvpm_andy April 11, 2012 at 11:05 am - Reply

    Response posted on October 8th 2005 by Susan Pronk, Volunteer Coordinator, St Marys Hospital / Mayo Clinic, Minnesotta, USA

    Thank you for a Hot Topic that recognizes the correlation of stress level and the increased levels of paperwork and other human resource related practices now required of volunteer managers. While we realize the inherent value of personally relating to our volunteers it seems like more and more time is being taken up with this elevated level of required reporting.

    I agree that it is a good idea to utilize the expertise of volunteers who are able to handle delegated assignments like interviewing , orienting and training new volunteers. Many of our volunteers find that this is a welcome challenge and rise to the task with ease and do a marvelous job. This is also a good way to build leadership skills in the volunteer organization while freeing up some of your time for other tasks.

    I have also found that belonging to professional organizations for volunteer management has been a benefit not only for the educational offerings, but as mentioned to be able to collaborate on topics of frustation. Colleagues in the profession are generally ready, willing and able to share ideas and a sympathetic ear when the stress level rises and a fresh view of the situation is needed.

    Taking a short break and going to a quiet place to get away from phones and conversation for a few minutes has been beneficial for me. Sometimes that is all we need to get back on track and diffuse the stress.

    Chocolate helps too……………..

  4. ozvpm_andy April 11, 2012 at 11:04 am - Reply

    Response posted on October 3rd 2005 by Marisa Nowak, Community Visitors Scheme Coordinator, MS Society of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

    Q. Do you agree managers are working under more pressure than ever before?

    A. Yes

    Q. What coping mechanisms have you tried that worked?

    A. Yoga & Meditation, Assistance from Volunteers when needed, Planning work schedule to ensure deadlines are met.

    Q. What have you tried that didn’t work?

    A Panic and overworking i.e taking home work and working on these on weekends and week evenings leading to accumulation of stress and fatigue.

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