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Setting volunteers up for success

Volunteers are strategic assets for nonprofits. Some of my clients rely greatly on volunteers to fulfill their missions. In addition to board members and committee members, there are event organizers, fundraisers, service providers, tutors and mentors, crisis or helpline responders, people who shelve books, and those who staff hospital waiting rooms to let you know your loved one is out of surgery. The list goes on.

To treat your volunteers with the respect they deserve, first think strategically about the different roles they play within your organization. Next, create proper job descriptions.

It's just as important to have clear job descriptions for volunteer positions as for paid staff roles, including scope of work, required time commitment and qualifications. For example, the duties and responsibilities for a prospective board member are different than they are for a volunteer tutor. The time commitment for a volunteer who must train to be a crisis line operator and commit to a certain number of hours per week is different from someone who works on a one-time event.

Facilitate healthy staff-volunteer partnerships

When staff leaders understand both the significance of the roles volunteers play, as well as the need to support and value them, a solid partnership follows. Having job descriptions ensures that staff members spell out what is and is not appropriate or realistic for volunteers to do. Since the relationship is a two-way street, job descriptions are also blueprints for what organizations will do for their volunteers: how they will treat them, how they will train them, how they will support them. Job descriptions ensure that nonprofits don't take advantage of volunteers or put them in situations for which they are not equipped.

When volunteer roles and expectations are clearly articulated, everyone benefits. It is likely to be a better experience for both the volunteers and the organizations to which they devote their time and energy. Volunteers feel good understanding where they fit in and the meaning of their contributions. Knowing the depth and breadth of the expectations, as well as the boundaries, can help them settle successfully into their work. Volunteers feel empowered in their roles because they truly understand the importance of the work they do. It enhances the feeling of doing good, while increasing the likelihood of recognition from others — thus maximizing both the intrinsic and extrinsic reasons for why volunteers, well, volunteer.

There are pitfalls for organizations without clear job descriptions. Dissatisfaction among volunteers, as well as among staff, may grow when expectations and boundaries are fuzzy. In some cases, the "wrong" people may be selected for volunteer roles. It may be that they aren't appropriate for the assignment based on skill set or temperament, and thus they flounder in what they do. They may need excessive supervision and become a drain on their supervisors. Volunteers may not honor their commitments or they may not be a values or culture match for the organization. Turnover may be significant. Finally, it's just plain difficult to recruit if you don't know what you're looking for.

Retain volunteers through a relationship of trust and specialness

Retention can be viewed as maintaining long, mutually beneficial relationships with volunteers. It may manifest itself with board members who seek to grow into leadership roles, or volunteers who are as committed to their weekly tutoring as they are to their jobs.

First impressions are meaningful. How volunteers are brought into organizations affects how they feel about what they do. Volunteers who understand the expectations, where they fit in the organization, and who to go to with questions or concerns are likely to have a better experience and stay committed longer. When the experience matches the job description, the relationship is built on trust.

Organizations lacking standards for their volunteers may have a more difficult time retaining them. The uncritical acceptance of anyone interested in volunteering may lead to a disparate pool of individuals ultimately diluting the experience for those who, in fact, are the right fit.

Sometimes issues arise in the volunteer arrangement that need attention. This is where clearly articulated job descriptions serve as a starting point for addressing a touchy situation. Indeed, a job description may provide the framework for dealing with a board member who doesn't attend meetings. It may provide the concrete example of behavior that is deemed inappropriate for a volunteer working with youth.

Not all volunteers merit retaining. Sometimes it's just not a fit. Job descriptions offer a kind way to remove individuals who don't seem able to cut it in an organization. Indeed, they are tools to manage difficult conversations while allowing volunteers to save face.

Cultivate volunteers as ambassadors

Volunteers are ambassadors for their nonprofits. Whether they realize it — or the leaders of the organizations they serve understand it — volunteers may have a broad effect on an organization's reputation. These individuals are out in the community. They are in a position to further influence recruiting more volunteers and even staff. They are in a position to become donors and influence other potential donors. They provide living, breathing nonprofit visibility and marketing.

Volunteers are steadfast when they feel respected and valued. Honor their experience — the roles they play and the value leaders place on them — as a factor of organizational success. By being straightforward with volunteers, welcoming them into the organization, and recognizing them and the important role they play, great things can happen.

For more from Amy Wishnick, visit Wishnick & Associates.

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

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Consultant dedicated to nonprofit mission success through focus, clarity and capacity