Managing Volunteers

Finding the Right Balance

Managing Volunteers - Finding the Right Balance

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Managing volunteers can be challenging.

If you've ever managed in a nonprofit organization, you may have encountered some challenges with your volunteers.

For example, even though they've agreed to work during certain hours, some days they may have to leave earlier than expected because of personal commitments. Not only does this make you frustrated, but you then don't have enough people to get the job done.

What do you do in this situation? The volunteers aren't paid, so you can't MAKE them stay. On the other hand, you need your staff to work to a schedule so that your organization can function efficiently.

However, when people work for free, getting them to stick to your deadlines, or to follow your explicit instructions, is different from managing paid staff in the private sector. Getting the most out of volunteers takes empathy, balance, and a high degree of managerial skill.

In this article, we outline the specific challenges of managing a volunteer workforce, and offer some tips on how to do it effectively.

If you'd like more information about general management within the nonprofit sector, see Managing in Nonprofit Organizations.

Legalities of Managing Volunteers

It's important to define exactly what volunteers are – and what they're not.

Nonprofits can get into legal trouble if they don't follow certain rules. Every country has different laws about volunteers – and it's important that you know what your own country's rules and regulations are – so we'll just review some general guidelines here.

First of all, volunteers are usually defined as people who perform a service for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons. They don't produce anything the organization can sell for profit, and they work without any promise of compensation.

This means that volunteers typically don't have any kind of contract or expectation of payment in money, goods, or services.

However, you should create a clear description of their tasks, which explains the boundaries of what they'll do, and to whom they'll report. However, never label this as a job description.

Before Accepting a Volunteer

Many nonprofits simply take everyone who offers their services. While this may, at first, seem like a good idea (after all, who would turn down a volunteer?), it's not always the best approach.

Not every person is a good fit for every position – or every organization. It takes time and practice to find good volunteers, and match those people with positions they'll really enjoy and be effective at.

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In this respect, finding people who fit is as relevant for the private sector as it is for nonprofits. No organization can function effectively when it constantly has to deal with people who don't fulfill their responsibilities, or do their jobs reliably.

Effective management of your volunteers starts with the selection process. Taking your time here can help you avoid problems later on.

Use these guidelines when recruiting volunteers:

  • Carefully evaluate candidates – This is just as important as screening private-sector job applicants. Have an application process, and check people's references – especially if the volunteer will work with funding, children, or animals.
  • Interview thoroughly – Sit down with candidates, and find out specific details: Why do they want to volunteer with your organization? How much time can they work each week? Do they have any personal issues that might affect scheduling? What unique skills do they have? What do they hope to gain from volunteering? If you understand what motivates them, this will help you make the relationship successful for all concerned.
  • Create task descriptions – Make sure every volunteer position has a detailed description of tasks that must be done. When screening applicants for suitability, this can help you – and them – decide which tasks are the best match for which people.
  • Have a confidentiality agreement – Some volunteers might have access to confidential information – for example, donors and fundraising details. Ask your volunteers to sign a written agreement, stating that they won't release this information to anyone else.

Tips for Successful Management

Once your volunteer team is in place, you can get the most out of them by doing the following:

  • Provide proper training – To help your volunteers operate more effectively, give them plenty of education and training. And don't forget that the training you offer may be one of the reasons why they volunteered in the first place. Volunteering is a great way to gain extra experience and skills.
  • Start slowly – Don't give your volunteers a huge task straight away. Ease them into the routine, and give them lots of feedback as they work.
  • Recognize their contribution – You can't reward your volunteers with financial compensation, but it's still important to recognize their efforts. Be creative! Say thank you, give awards for service, or praise them in your organization's newsletter or the local newspaper. When people feel appreciated, they're more likely to put more effort into their tasks and to continue volunteering.
  • Be respectful – If you're in charge of both paid staff and volunteers, make sure the volunteers don't feel left out or unimportant. It's easy for paid staff to think of others as ‘just volunteers,' but treating volunteers equally is vital if you want them to stay. If you have meetings, holiday parties, or staff recognitions, include your volunteers.
  • Set goals – If appropriate, set objectives for your volunteers. Give them goals to work toward, and hold them accountable for the results.
  • Provide mentors, if possible – A mentor could be you, another manager, or a senior team member. Mentoring is a great way to help your volunteers learn and grow, and it can strengthen the bond between them and your organization.
  • Give them time off – Burnout can be a problem with volunteers, so be sure that your volunteers take some time off. Yes, they're probably passionate about what they're doing, but make sure they take breaks and vacations. This will help them stay around for the long term.
  • Have regular performance reviews – Set a schedule, perhaps every month or every quarter. Let the volunteers know how they're doing, and how they might improve.
  • Coordinate tasks with paid staff – Make sure that volunteer tasks complement the work done by your paid team. You don't want your paid staff to worry about their job security.

Key Points

Managing volunteers has a different set of challenges from managing paid staff. However, by choosing volunteers carefully, and matching the right people with the right positions, you can reduce the likelihood of problems.

Recognize the efforts of your volunteers, especially if you also manage paid staff. Volunteers sometimes feel less appreciated than paid team members, so include volunteers in meetings and social activities to show that you value their involvement.

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Comments (3)
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    Hi Yann,
    You highlight a good point in that there has to be a bond between the volunteer and the aim of the organization ... or why else would they want to volunteer their time. Then, if that bond breakdown or no longer exists, then it is time to move on.

    Many charities that I've come across tend to be so grateful they have the volunteers, that they do not think in terms of managing them as they would an employee in a private enterprise. So, this is something that charities could benefit more of ... to manage their volunteers like employees and when things are no longer working out, then it is time to move on!

  • Over a month ago yann wrote
    The article provides a good all-round set of practical tips. As a trustee on the board of a small charity, I'd make an additional remark. Non-profit organisations often have simpler and frankly more compelling missions than commercial entities. They're not for profit, so they have to stand for something else, and that something else is usually a lot more understandable by the public than the vision/mission of corporations. The mission statement of a non-profit organisation will usually create an emotional bond that is a lot easier for the leader to detect (or not) in the volunteer. Sensing and assessing the strength of this emotional bond is a key for recruitment and on-going management of volunteers. Ultimately, when you sense that the emotional bond is no longer as strong as it used to be, it's time to let go. One has to accept that a volunteering job is a step - that can be long or short - in the personal journey of the individual.

  • Over a month ago smaxwell wrote
    Wonderful and timely article as I have to manage volunteers at work and could use some direction in how to structure their experience and keep them committed. Given that I am a new employee (nearing the end of my third month), it can be a challenge managing others and showing them the ropes while I am still getting accustomed to my new job. Thankfully the volunteers I work with are generally committed and excited about the organization and the work they are given, we are close in age, and have bonded quickly.