Working with Volunteers

Facilitating great experiences for volunteers lies at the heart of any association. CMC-Canada is no exception. Sometimes, despite our best intentions, something just doesn’t work. Before looking at how we might improve the experience, I thought it best to do my homework first. While by no means exhaustive, here are some of the practices that I found when looking at available research.


 Image Courtesy of Creative Commons

Remember the “pick me, pick me” classroom phenomenon? The one or two souls who took all the pressure off of everyone else by answering all the questions? Then one day it was your turn despite not having your hand up. After some sputtering and false starts, you inevitably held up the white flag and accepted the moment of supreme humiliation in front of the sea of six year olds that you once thought of as friends – all for one and one for all (or not).

Despite the shaky debut, most of us come to a gradual realization that volunteering in the class has benefits – everyone knows who you are and you learn to ‘steer’ the class discussions to the topics you know something about (an advanced skill acquired by only a few!). Of course, the real benefit of volunteering eventually reveals itself when you are routinely chosen to take on the plum jobs inside and outside of the classroom – mentoring, reading to younger kids, helping out at various events or even more exotic field trips - all because you have been noticed.

Volunteering for Grown Ups

‘Jamie’ had recently decided to leave her position at a major consultancy and decided to increase her professional profile and improve her network of potential colleagues by volunteering for several local CMC-Canada Chapter events focused on topics she knew something about and a speaker she admired. She sent an email inquiry about volunteering. Weeks passed and Jamie began to feel anxious: was she so unqualified that no one would take her on, even as a volunteer? Did they not need help? Were they poorly organized? Eventually, she mustered up her courage and called the Chapter President, only to discover that there had been a two-month gap between Boards and her email was still sitting in an inbox, unread.

Think that Jamie’s story is unique? Think again. While some prospective volunteers find their enthusiasm wanes upon learning more about the role's responsibilities, an astonishing number of potential volunteers are left hanging by an ineffective (or non-existent) volunteer ‘onboarding’ process. Onboarding refers to the conscious process of bringing someone ‘on board’ through orientation, introductions, a bit of training, a few simple inaugural tasks to get started to help figure out how things work around here and assess how people work together.

Whether we've been told that we have to volunteer (high school students must in order to graduate, in some provinces), or we’ve just learned about a cause that appeals to us, the fact remains: when we decide to volunteer and call an organization to ask about available opportunities, we are usually at a point of strong motivation.

Once the decision to volunteer is made or one has been volunteered, what happens next is critical. The first steps to engaging can quickly foretell success or disappointment. There are a few things that can happen:

  • The volunteer role is not a great fit for volunteer time or talents. Working as a volunteer for an organization is not the same as visiting the organization or admiring what it does.
  • The response of the organization may be slow or the role poorly defined.

In her book 365 Ways to Motivate and Reward your Nonprofit Volunteers Every Day, Melissa Sequeira writes, “Asking for volunteers but not responding to them immediately or not having a method to immediately place them in your program is like advertising a product you don’t really have, which can cause hard feelings about your agency on the part of potential supporters.” She adds, “This is not simply a matter of common courtesy. Enthusiasm tends to wane with time, and the longer you wait to respond, the more you risk losing your potential volunteers, or at least losing some of their trust. Your delay in responding could be interpreted as indifference or a sign of ineptness.”

It does take courage and confidence to come forward and volunteer. When there is no response, it is quite conceivable that good intentions will translate into a barrier to future bouts of ‘pick me, pick me’.

The 'new' volunteer is looking for ways to engage the organization in a way that fits into their own busy schedules and they are looking for guidance and support more than supervision and recognition.

What's the Lesson?: don’t delay and provide specific guidance when inviting participation (perhaps a well thought out job or role description would make sense).

I will explore managing a volunteer workforce in an upcoming post.