Managing Volunteers

Have you ever served as a volunteer? I hope your experiences have been better than most others. Imagine being told that they need you because they cannot afford employees. But since you are a volunteer, you will be treated badly. Or imagine showing up for an event after sacrificing valuable sleep, because you volunteered to, and finding out that you are not really needed.

We have accepted this statement to be a fact: “That’s how volunteering works!” And we use it to justify all the negative aspects of volunteering. I wish we change that. Sincere volunteers can be more dedicated than your paid employees and they usually fill critical gaps in your team.

Volunteers are usually perceived as people with plenty of time to waste. Their skills are not taken as seriously and definitely not used effectively. They end up doing odd jobs till they get bored and leave.

People are terrible at managing people:

It’s true. Systems and policies can be managed more easily than people can. People are our best resources but we all have, at some point in life, failed to manage them well. However, there’s hope for everyone who is willing to learn and embrace change.

I have worked with volunteers for a few years now and have often served as one. These experiences have taught me a few things.

Evaluate volunteers to find out their strengths:

It is now common sense to place the best people in roles that use their strengths. Apply the same logic for volunteers. Just because someone wants to volunteer to be part of the meal planning team, does not mean that they are suitable for it. Evaluate them. If they are not gifted meal planners, assign a different role to them. You will be amazed at how well people perform when they do things they truly enjoy. This is especially true for volunteers. Often they are placed in positions that they are not suitable for and therefore, their work output is low. Here’s your chance of helping them do their best and let the project flourish as a result – assign the right roles. Added advantage: you will not have to micromanage them.

If you absolutely have to work with volunteers without relevant talent, invest time in training them. Untrained volunteers can cause disasters. When volunteers find fulfillment in their roles and learn from their experience, they might last longer and work better and that’s a win for everyone.

Value volunteers like you value your employees:

The most common challenge in managing volunteers is to find them in the first place. Getting people interested to volunteer has often more to do with how their services are requested and less to do with their interests and time. Plenty of talented people volunteer. Therefore, value them. Treating volunteers badly only leads to less commitment and less volunteers. Volunteers who are treated well will, in turn, invite others to volunteer.

In most organizations, volunteers are managed by other volunteers or by staff who are already handling too many roles. The reason stated is simply, “They are volunteers. What do you expect?” As a manager, you can do something about it: treat volunteers respectfully. Make them feel valued. You will reap the benefits. Avoid exploiting them just because they are passionate about something. As soon as someone figures out that they are not valued, you can expect a drop in their performance.

Set clear expectations:

When advertising for a volunteer position, ensure that you are setting the right expectations. This includes expectations regarding their responsibilities, schedules, performance and accountability. Since people usually sign up to be volunteers without being compelled to, they will most likely perform well if they commit to something. Often high expectations are set for volunteers but they are not clearly communicated.  This leads to frustrations for everyone involved.

The other problem that I have experienced is that often volunteers can get away with insufficient effort or inadequate results. They are not held accountable because they don’t get paid. But it does not have to be that way. You can only hold them accountable when you set clear expectations that they had accept when they sign up. So save yourself and your team the trouble of having to deal with half-hearted volunteers and set clear expectations.

Commend them:

Money does not motivate volunteers. When a job is done well or even when a volunteer shows up, don’t hesitate to commend them. They are most likely not expecting any benefits or rewards but genuine commendations make their service more meaningful.

You need your volunteers and they need the opportunities. Build trust, manage them well and watch them achieve.


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