HOT TOPIC – June / July 2009
By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar
Over the years I have had the opportunity to write and edit hundreds of hot topics, articles, reports, blogs and even books on the topic of volunteerism.
So when Susan Ellis recently approached me to write a module on the topic of ‘Interviewing, Screening and Placing volunteers’ for her excellent online training program Everyone Ready , I was keen to get on with the process of pulling it all together.
There was however one small but fundamental difference in the type of writing that was required. Instead of creating a text which learners would be reading , this exercise required me to write a ‘script’, which I would later record for students to listen to.
Now that may not sound like such a diversion from the norm but believe me, in spite of all the experience I have had, the exercise required me to have a complete re-think about what I wrote, how I structured the text and even the tact I took to describe the various elements within it.
I am happy to say the final product is terrific (even if I do say so myself) and the opportunity to create a training piece outside the way I’d normally write something was a terrific learning opportunity.
So in addition to being a shameless plug for Everyone Ready, what has this got to do with a hot topic for this month?
Well it got me thinking yet again about how we, as Volunteer Program Managers, need to balance the way we recruit new volunteers and deal with our teams in an ongoing way thereafter.
In 2006, we ran the Australasian Retreat for Advanced Volunteer Management with the theme ‘Have we gone too far’? What we tried to achieve at that event, was to ask experienced practitioners in the field of volunteer management if they thought we may have travelled ‘too far’ down the road of professionalising volunteerism – and whether through that, we may have made some of our programs a little too impersonal to volunteers (new and existing) in the process.
The exercise of writing the training module for Susan reminded me that it is really important that from time to time we view what we do through the eyes of a different audience – in this case, potential volunteers coming to our organisation for the first time – to assess whether or not the process we are using to recruit volunteers is a friendly and inviting one and not one which is clinical and impersonal.
While we hear a lot about the new breed of confident and brash volunteers, let us never forget that for many people approaching our programs for the first time, the very act of calling our office may be a giant brave step into unchartered territory.
Consider the following:
- How does a potential new team member find out about your volunteer opportunities?
- What messages do they receive from your website and other promotional materials?
- How easy do you make it for someone to get engaged?
- How quickly do you follow up with inquiries?
- When someone calls or visits your office for the first time, how might they perceive your operations? (physical location, reception staff, decor etc)
The above questions (and more) do not apply just to new volunteers. Consider the same types of questions of your returning and regular volunteers. Is there a risk that after a while you are taking them for granted, assuming that an annual volunteer week party will cover a multitude of neglect throughout the course of a year?
The challenge for our programs is to find that delicate balance between being supportive of the needs of volunteers while at the same time being professional in everything we do, and with limited resources this becomes an ever increasingly difficult thing to do. By placing ourselves in the place of volunteers from time to time, we can begin to ensure that our programs don’t forget the ‘volunteer’ part of that balancing act
It is worth remembering that regardless of whether we call our profession volunteer administration, volunteer program management, community development or even human resource or personnel management, we are in the game of engaging people in meaningful activity, and my message this month is quite a simple one; Be sure you are not forgetting people in the name of process or progress
So let’s hear from you:
~ Do you have difficulty giving your volunteers as much attention as you’d like as the paperwork piles up around you?
~ Do you have tips you can share with others about how you have overcome these difficulties
~ Have you created innovative roles that ensure new and existing volunteers are well supported in your program?
~ Do you have any other thoughts about this topic you would like to share?
Response posted on June 9th, 2009 by Wendy Moore, Volunteer Coordinator, Brisbane, Australia
One of the reasons that our volunteer program is so successful is that we place people first . Whichever way that prospective volunteers find out about our program, either online or by word of mouth, they are happy to make contact with us by phone or email. We respond promptly and send more detailed information about our program along with an application via email or mail if they prefer. Included in the information is a covering letter inviting the prospective applicant to contact our office to set an appointment to come in and speak to us in person.
It is our duty as responsible volunteer managers to protect the existing volunteer team by ensuring that prospective volunteers are adequately screened and background checked. The process does not have to be impersonal. The interview itself may take the form of a friendly discussion providing information about the service and gaining some insight into the motivation of the prospective volunteer. Most people appreciate the professionalism of our recruitment process.
While our office is a little tucked away, once people come into the office they are pleasantly surprised by the myriad of photos of happy smiling volunteers which are displayed all over the walls. The office has a warm and friendly atmosphere which emanates from both paid staff and volunteers alike.
There has been an influx recently in episodic volunteering evidenced by an increase in the number of high school and university students wishing to volunteer during school holidays. We are keen to encourage these volunteers as they are young and enthusiastic and add another dimension to the service.
We are constantly exploring ways of developing new innovative programs to encourage our volunteers. With such a diverse range of age, experience and backgrounds, it is challenging yet essential to ensure that our volunteers have a variety of tasks which suits their individual volunteering aspirations.
Volunteers are our work and when a volunteer comes into the office our attention is on them. They are welcomed with a friendly greeting and we always stop whatever paperwork we are doing to ensure that they have our full undivided attention. Our volunteers are always personally thanked for their help at the end of their shift.
While we recognize our volunteers at special luncheons during National VolunteerWeek and also at Christmas time, our volunteers are recognized for their efforts every time they come in to volunteer. We always remember that our volunteers are donating a very precious commodity, their time. Our gratitude for their generosity is extended to them through a kind word, a genuine, heartfelt thank you and an appreciation for the valuable gift that they have given, themselves .
Response posted on June 4th, 2009 by DJ Cronin, Volunteer Manager, Brisbane, Australia
I think the key to success in this area as well as an indicator on how you are travelling is some good evaluation processes. Do you evaluate
your program on a regular basis? Also, perhaps consider having a representative committee made up of volunteers with the brief to
continuously provide feedback on how the program is going and how the management of same is going.
Getting lost in the paperwork and the process and becoming â€œout of touchâ€ with the volunteers can and does happen. Therefore building a good relationship with new recruits from day one is vital. I have often used the analogy that sometimes volunteer managers need sales skills to recruit and retain volunteers. After all if a volunteer is not impressed by your organisation they can always volunteers at a similar agency down the road. So how do you woo them and then keep them? And I agree with you Andy â€“ they will quickly see past the annual volunteer recognition event if this is seen to be just a token gesture and the act of recognition is not applied throughout the year.
Too often I believe we think of recognition in terms of lunches, events during Volunteers Week, International Volunteers Day, service pins,
certificates and the like. And we may believe that this is enough. But for me, other recognition tools include giving volunteers a voice in
your program, ensuring that they are meaningfully engaged, encouraging regular feedback and debriefing. Add to that, celebrating their
achievements apart from just celebrating that they are volunteers and promoting their success in the wider community as well as to the
management team at your agency.
We also need to tie recognition of volunteers to gaining more resources for our volunteer programs. If your service could be better funded and resourced then can you begin to use the argument that not doing so may imply that volunteer effort is not being adequately recognised by your agency? This can have a powerful effect on thinking patterns! And imagine if you had a strong volunteers committee that felt the same way and began articulating this viewpoint to senior management?
In my experience, volunteers don’t actively seek special attention. They don’t see themselves as a precious resource. But they do want their contribution taken seriously and they appreciate providing feedback and suggestion as well as being in a safe place to be able to articulate this.
This takes relationship building and trust is the key for this to be enabled. I believe that this trust needs to be instilled at the very
first interview. The first interview is critical. First impressions do last. Your environment does matter. We interview prospective volunteers
in an office where the walls are decorated with photos of volunteers in action. There are posters on our achievements. There is calming
background music playing. There is a sense of a warm invite. We must remember that it is a two way street in this selling business. At the
first interview this prospective volunteer is selling themselves to you while at the same time you are trying to sell why they should be
volunteering with you. We normally give an hour to the first interview.
We find it that important. They are giving their time. Then we will take the time. We also inform them at the interview that the success of our
programs is due to the contribution and feedback of the volunteers themselves.
It’s an important chain. Volunteer managers need to keep in touch with volunteers and volunteer thinking just as peak bodies and volunteer
centres need to stay in touch with volunteer managers just as trainers and consultants and experts need to keep in touch with peak bodies and volunteer centres ,volunteers and volunteer managers combined!
Keeping it real! Not losing touch! So important!