Giving volunteers the supervision and evaluation they need
Do you hesitate to evaluate volunteers? You're not alone. Like other nonprofit leaders, you might fear alienating—or even losing—people who give freely of their time and talent.
Consider another point of view: Volunteers deserve supervision and evaluation precisely because they are not on your payroll. Many of these folks come to your organization because they want to develop specific job skills. In addition, volunteer performance affects your organization's outcomes and reputation.
Everyone benefits when volunteers get the supervision and evaluation they need. Here are five tools for doing exactly that.
1. A job description
Start by getting the "ground rules" for volunteers in writing by creating a job description for each volunteer assignment. This document sets the terms for every future conversation about performance.
A useful job description includes:
- Your organization's mission
- The project or position and its link to your mission
- Specific tasks
- Required skills for starting the job
- Skills that the volunteer can learn while on the job
- Setting in which the volunteer will work
- Time commitment and scheduling options
- Process for volunteer screening, supervision and evaluation
2. A systematic process
You probably have a defined process for evaluating your paid staff. Consider using the same process to evaluate volunteers. Key elements include:
- A probationary period. Tell your volunteers to expect extra instruction and feedback for the first 30 to 90 days on the job. At the end of that period, meet with volunteers to review their experience to date and mutually decide whether your organization is a good fit for them.
- Scheduled evaluations. Set up a timetable for volunteer evaluations after the probationary period. Annual evaluations are common, but twice-yearly or quarterly meetings might work even better for you. In any case, the mere presence of an evaluation schedule sends the message that you're running a professional organization.
- Standard evaluation documents. These don't have to be long or complex. Just create a table to list the areas in which you want volunteers to excel — for example, punctuality, quantity of work, quality of work, attitude and relationships with staff members. For each of these criteria, rate the volunteer on a scale from "needs improvement" to "outstanding." Fill out this form and ask volunteers to do the same. Then, compare your ratings.
- Self-evaluation. During your scheduled meetings, ask volunteers to expand on their self-evaluations. Ask: What's going well for you? What could improve? Is there anything you want to do differently? Also encourage volunteers to give honest feedback on their training, orientation and day-to-day activities. Because they're outside your organization, volunteers might offer suggestions that you won't get from staff members.
Recognize the work of volunteers in both formal and informal ways. Formal methods include recognition dinners, newsletter features, spotlights in your annual report and "volunteer of the month" programs.
Informal methods — such as spontaneous expressions of appreciation and occasional email messages or handwritten notes — can be just as effective. This kind of communication works best when it's:
- Specific rather than general — for example, "You made those phone calls in record time" rather than "You're doing a great job"
- Given by a volunteer's direct supervisor
4. Respect for the volunteer's perspective
Supervisors often equate evaluation with constructive criticism. Harvard psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey present another option: deconstructive criticism. The following table summarizes some differences between these two approaches:
The supervisor holds the correct point of view.
The volunteer's point of view can be just as useful as the supervisor's.
The supervisor teaches the volunteer how to be more effective.
The supervisor and volunteer can learn from each other.
Conflict between supervisors and volunteers means that a breakdown has occurred.
Conflict emerges from different ways of interpreting or responding to the same event. This doesn't always indicate a breakdown.
For someone managing volunteers, deconstructive criticism shows up in statements such as:
- "We see this situation differently."
- "Both of us have something to learn from this event."
- "You share your perspective, I'll share mine — and we'll draw lessons that we can apply going forward."
5. Willingness to reassign—or part ways—when needed
Sometimes volunteers just don't work out. The tasks they've been assigned aren't a good fit. They miss too many scheduled work sessions. They routinely show up late.
If your feedback on such points has been timely, specific and documented in writing over time, then you have every right to say:
- "We want to give you a different assignment."
- "We've found someone who's a better fit for this job."
- "We've decided to let you go."
These aren't easy things to say—but in the long term, they can benefit the volunteer as much as your organization.
Free Management Library: Developing and managing volunteer programs by Carter McNamara
VolunteerHub: Volunteers, part I: What makes them stay? by Christine Litch (2007)
VolunteerHub: Volunteers, part II: What makes them leave? by Christine Litch (2007)