Senior Musings June 2014

Posted 06.24.14

The Care and Feeding of Volunteers

Volunteers are vital to many organizations, including those with paid staff. With cutbacks so widespread, schools increasing rely on parents to help out in the library, lunchroom, and classrooms, as well as on field trips.

Traditionally, Scouts and Girl Guide leaders have been volunteer positions, as have many key roles in churches, even the job of treasurer in large churches where a great deal of money is involved.

Finding reliable and trustworthy volunteers can be a challenge, with so many demands on everyone's time. For this reason, it's important to treat volunteers well. It's time-consuming and difficult to continually train new people, so retaining good volunteers is key.

Individuals volunteer for different reasons. It's wise to understand each volunteer and what motivates him or her. Does he want to take over an organization, perhaps yours? Does she want to learn a particular skill that will be useful in finding a job? Does he just like to be around people who enjoy his interests, whether that be a special hobby or computers? Does she just want to get out of the house for a few hours every so often?

You might want to ask each volunteer their specific goals, and discuss how you might help fulfill those. Can you help someone develop leadership skills? Might you be able to pair the person who wants to learn how to maintain a database with whoever does that for your organization?

Those volunteers who want to enjoy their hobby or just get out and mingle with like-minded people aren't going to be happy doing a single task, alone in a cubicle. Provide some opportunities for interaction, and suggest that these volunteers organize informal get-togethers. You might even pair a teen-aged hobbyist with a young mother to plan a picnic, a small fund-raiser, or to help out with a larger event.

Some volunteers work best on their own, and don't like someone looking over their shoulders. It's helpful to offer those individuals brief, clear, written instructions, then walk away and let them figure it out.

Others are insecure and need continual feedback and encouragement. Don't accept someone as a volunteer who is going to be more needy than you have time to deal with. Instead of saving you time by helping with routine tasks, you'll find yourself spending more time than the task warrants.

Consider providing some perks to your volunteers, depending on your budget and circumstances.

1. Food and drink: Assign someone to ensure that the coffee pot is kept clean and filled. Offer tea as well, and a selection of juices and soft drinks. A box of inexpensive cookies, or a roster of volunteers who offer to bring goodies on a regular basis keeps everyone happy. How about microwave popcorn, a jar of wrapped hard candies, or a mug of lollypops?

2. Transportation: Some volunteers hesitate to offer their services because they can't afford transportation. Consider giving one volunteer some bus tickets, another a designated parking spot, and pair someone else with a driver whom you can compensate with some gas money.

3. A letter of recommendation: Some volunteers don't think to ask for these, but they can be very useful later on. Make sure you offer a letter as soon as you 'hire' a volunteer, as it becomes a reason to do a good job. And keep copies of these on file, as a volunteer might not think he needs a letter until several months after he's gone back to school or moved away.

4. Some kind of tangible gift: This might be a lovely certificate of appreciation or a small item, even one you picked up at a second-hand store.

5. The occasional special invitation: Perhaps you can provide a ticket and/or offer a ride to a local event. Or invite volunteers to a picnic, barbecue, or other informal party. Put photos of these gatherings in your newsletter.

If you're dealing with volunteers not at a physical site but online, there are still perks you can offer.

1. Give your volunteers a link to their websites from yours.

2. Provide free ads in your newsletter for whatever they have to sell -- even a garage sale or similar 'classified' if they don't have a business or group they want to promote.

3. Create a page on your website featuring your volunteers. Post photos, either alone or with their pets and/or families, comments from them about how much fun it is to work with you, and comments from you as well.

4. If a volunteer doesn't have his own website, offer to create a page for them on your site. This needn't be in your sitemap, but rather a unique URL they can put on their resume, Facebook page, or send to friends and potential employers.

No matter where you interact with your volunteers, you need to set some clear ground rules. It's wise to have these in place, in writing, before a situation arises. Then, the guilty party will not feel you've suddenly imposed a restriction just because of their actions.

Ground rules should include a way to deal with conflicts, noise, interruptions, those who consistently arrive late to meetings, and tasks that aren't completed on time or as instructed.

Give your volunteers as much leeway as possible, but make it clear who reports to whom, and who has the final say on some specific issues. If you publish a newsletter, it's important that the editor have the right to edit; Making this clear from the beginning will reduce hard feelings when you have to cut or change what someone has written.

It should also be clear who has the final say over office procedures, such as who decides what is filed and where. Some volunteers may be pack rats, others might be afraid to throw anything away. But it's also important to have a protocol for filing important items, such as original photos, drawings, back issues of newsletters, and similar things you decide should be kept. To eliminate clutter, set a time limit on these, holding some things only for a few months and archiving others 'forever.'

Volunteers are precious. Give them clear guidelines, and treat them well!

Barbara Florio Graham is a professional freelance writer and a publishing consultant. The author of three books, Five Fast Steps to Better Writing (20th anniversary edition), Five Fast Steps to Low-Cost Publicity, and the award-winning Mewsings/Musings, she served as Managing Editor for Prose to Go: Tales from a Private List. Her website, http://SimonTeakettle.com, contains a great deal of free information, including resources for writers and publishers, contract advice, and many pages of interesting facts about science, history, food, animals, culture and inventions. Simon Teakettle, the cat who 'owns the company' has his own blog, and offers many free pages related to cat ownership and training.

Copyright © 2014 Barbara Florio Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/06.14