Too often, volunteer involvement is described this way:
Volunteers contact us, we give them an assignment, they do it. Ta da!
This simplified description comes often from people who are from the for-profit/corporate sector or who are in senior management – they have no idea how much work it takes behind the scenes for successful volunteer engagement.
Volunteers should certainly feel like getting into an assignment is seamless and quick, but to give volunteers that experience actually takes a LOT of planning behind-the-scenes by the organization. For instance, there are rarely a plethora of well-defined tasks or roles laying around a nonprofit office waiting to be done by just anyone with some time on their hands and a good heart. It takes a lot of time and support to develop volunteering assignments, including “micro-volunteering” tasks that will take just a few hours, and not just any person is appropriate every assignment – some require particular skills, a certain amount of time within a specific time frame, or work at a particular type of day.
In addition, a person’s desire to volunteer is often not enough for a volunteer to be successful: a candidate needs to be screened at least a bit in order to make sure the volunteer understands the very real commitment he or she is making, even if that commitment is just a couple of hours. The candidate may need to be further screened to make sure he or she really does know how to do the assignment. To not do any screening means much more time down the road for the organization, tracking down volunteers, correcting sub-par assignments, finding more volunteers or staff to re-do assignments that were poorly done or not done at all, etc.
And, ofcourse, supporting volunteers takes a lot of time, no matter how automated you make the process. Someone has to be contacting volunteers to ensure they are getting assignments done, have the support they need, etc. Someone has to keep volunteers in-the-loop about what’s happening at the organization, and to recognize the value of their work – otherwise, those volunteers go away.
A terrific, easy exercise that can be really helpful in showing just what it takes for your organization or an individual department to involve and support volunteers successfully is to create a flow chart mapping your volunteer engagement, or a series of maps for different parts of the volunteer management process — the volunteer in-take process, the volunteer assignment development and matching process, the volunteer support assignment, etc. You could do charts for each of these processes, and then show how they all intersect.
You can do this mapping exercise alone, by yourself (if you are the coordinator of volunteer program or involve large numbers of volunteers yourself), or you can do this with a group of employees and volunteers. A dry erase white board with markers is best, but any computer program that allows you to do a flow chart or graphics will work as well.
Here’s one example of what a volunteer in-take flow chart could look like as a result of your mapping exercise (every organization is different):
Don’t be surprised if, in doing this process, you find gaps in your volunteer management process. I’ve done this mapping process with several departments and organizations, and the results have been revealing. Many times, I’ve found that an organization thinks it isn’t recruiting enough volunteers when, actually, it is — a lot of people are, in fact, responding to recruitment messages, but their information isn’t being forwarded to the coordinator of volunteers, or the volunteers are getting responses weeks or months after they express interest, instead of within hours or a few days. If I’m evaluating a volunteer program and an organization cannot produce such a chart — they don’t know what happens when someone calls, they don’t know how information gets to the coordinator of volunteers, the coordinator can’t say how many calls or emails he or she gets every month from potential volunteers, etc. — I know just how deep problems may be regarding the organization’s recruitment, involvement and support of volunteers.
Doing a chart correctly may require interviewing more than one person. For instance, just to map the volunteer in-take process correctly takes interviewing every person who answers the organization’s phone or main email address.
When I’m in charge of coordinating volunteers, I find this exercise quite helpful because it helps me educate fellow staff quickly on what it takes to involve volunteers successfully and helps explain why I’m doing whatever it is I’m doing.
Again, the example above is just for a volunteer in-take process (it doesn’t show how a volunteer is matched to an assignment, or how an assignment gets developed in the first place), and your map could be different for your organization. Maybe you don’t have an onsite orientation; your volunteer orientation may just be an email message, or may be an online video candidates for volunteering can view on their own. In either case, your map needs to show how you know they have read that email message or viewed that video.