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How to combine tasks and skills into specific jobs for volunteers

If your organization depends on volunteers, you face two immediate challenges. One is doing work every day that aligns with your mission and vision. The other is attracting people with diverse interests and skills to freely offer their time and talent to that work.

To meet both challenges at the same time, start with job design. The essence of job design is combining tasks to form complete and coherent assignments. When done well, the results are clear job descriptions, motivated volunteers with matching skills, and completed tasks.

However, the very nature of volunteer work poses barriers to this ideal. Volunteers come and go. Some are available only for a few hours a month or on irregular schedules. All this makes job design even more important.

You can approach volunteer job design in four phases:

  1. Review your organization's mission
  2. Do a task analysis
  3. Do a skills analysis
  4. Create jobs by combining tasks with skills

1. Review your organization's mission

Volunteers are most likely to engage with your organization when they believe in your mission. They want to see a direct link — however modest — between their tasks and that mandate.

The problem is that nonprofits sometimes drift away from their stated mission. This happens for many reasons. For example, funding for an organization's original work dries up. Stakeholder needs change. Foundations target new communities with different needs.

Job design starts with detecting such examples of "mission drift." Ask the following questions about your organization:

  • Does our mission clearly distinguish between projects that fall within our mandate and projects that don't?
  • Does our mission still align with the needs and goals of our stakeholders?
  • Has our strategic planning aligned our programs and services with our mission?
  • Would objective observers — clients, program participants, funders, news reporters, members of the public — agree with our answers to the above questions?

If you discover that some or all of your activities fall outside your mission, you have options. One is to rewrite your mission statement. Another is to realign your activities with your founding mission. Perhaps you could form a subsidiary — or even new organization — to take over some activities.

The key in any case is to make a conscious choice that sends a clear message to your volunteers.

2. Do a task analysis

The next phase of job design calls for analyzing your mission. Break it down into major areas of activity and related tasks. List what staff members and volunteers must do every day to make your mission a reality.

For example, a homeless shelter's areas of activity might include:

  • Fundraising
  • Building management
  • New housing construction
  • Food preparation
  • Emergency medical care
  • Workforce development
  • Early childhood development

In turn, each of those areas implies a set of tasks. Fundraising, for example, may include:

  • Planning campaigns
  • Designing direct mail materials
  • Making phone calls
  • Updating donor management software

Describe each task in a sentence that's specific enough to include in a job description.

3. Do a skills analysis

Next, list the skills that people need for each task. Answer the following questions:

  • Does this task require a specific degree, certification or type of training?
  • Does this task call for nontechnical skills such as writing, public speaking, budgeting, goal setting or time management?
  • Does this task call for people skills — the ability to interact with clients, participants, donors, staff members, board members, reporters or the public?
  • Are certain combinations of skills needed to complete this task?
  • How independently will people perform this task?
  • Could you offer on-the-job training to help people acquire these skills?
  • Which skills are required for this task, and which would be "nice to have"?

This is where job design for volunteers can take an unusual turn. When hiring staff members, you design jobs first and then look for people with certain skills to fill them. In contrast, volunteers with unique skills might show up at your door first, and you might design jobs especially for them.

4. Create jobs by combining tasks with skills

After completing the previous phases, look for patterns. Find ways to combine tasks and skills into specific jobs for volunteers.

Remember that job descriptions for paid staff might not be useful models for volunteers. Tasks that you'd combine into a single staff position — such as office manager or system administrator — might be better assigned to several volunteers who work as a team or at different times throughout the year.

Job design is never done, so make it a permanent item on your strategic planning agenda. You're more likely to attract great volunteers when their jobs are mission-driven and clearly defined.

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Disclaimer

MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

Disclaimer

References

Idealist: Screening, selecting and matching volunteers (2016)

Free Management Library: Developing and managing volunteer programs by Carter McNamara

The New York Times: Matching volunteers to the right missions by Phyllis Korkki (2011)

Volunteer Canada: A matter of design: Job design theory and application to the private sector (2001)

VolunteerHub: How to attract volunteers to your organization by Rob Cardosi (2015)

Community Tool Box: Section 1. Developing a plan for involving volunteers

References

Author

Writer and editor fascinated by knowledge management, behavior change and technology for nonprofits