Tracking distributed volunteers (& their distributed managers)

In the last two months, I’ve gotten the same request from two different organizations. I know how I would advise them entirely on my own, but I wanted to open this up to crowdsourcing.

Each of these organizations is based on just one region (they aren’t national), but have different work sites across the city/county. These work sites are sometimes offices, sometimes a garden, sometimes a farmer’s market, sometimes an airplane hanger… diverse! Each is well-established and growing, attracting lots of volunteers, from very diverse demographics. Their work is exciting, and their work cultures feel dynamic and fun, so they don’t have problems recruiting, nor retaining, volunteers – people REALLY want to be associated with these orgs because of the nature of their work (which could not be more different).

Each has distributed managers of volunteers – people in charge of various programs at these organizations and that, in addition to their program work, also recruit and work with volunteers – and that’s been a BIG part of their success at working with and involving volunteers. Volunteers don’t feel like they are working with an HR manager – they are working with people in charge of programs central to the missions of these organizations (that’s not a slam against HR managers, FYI). But that blessing has become a challenge and a potential for problems: the official, overall manager of volunteers is supposed to track all of these different volunteers working in different programs, ensuring each is trained properly, supported properly, etc., and that volunteers contributions are being properly recognized and tracked. But it’s not happening. Those that are working directly with these volunteers hate bureaucracy, and each have their own way of tracking and supporting volunteers. There’s no central database of information – every attempt to do so as failed.

I think the very first step to take is for the overall manager of volunteers at each organization is to make it clear that the goal of her effort is to create an on-going strategy to implement policies and practice that will create a system where every volunteer involved is properly screened and tracked, but a system that DOESN’T add a huge layer of bureaucracy such that it kills the incredible success these organizations have had in recruiting and involving volunteers, and the current very positive feeling volunteers have. It has to be emphasized again and again that the goal is to better support volunteers, and to better protect clients, volunteers themselves and staff as a result of whatever system is development – not just to create burdensome procedures.

I also think each organization needs to get executive director buy-in for this goal and development of a strategy, that the directive to staff to explore and implement a strategy has to come from the ED, loud and clear and more than once. I think the executive director needs to communicate to all staff that a system is going to be put in place because, while volunteer recruitment and retainment are, indeed, wildly successful at both organizations, there are some very negative scenarios that could arise because of the lack of accurate volunteer tracking – and then name some of those scenarios.

Then I think the overall manager of volunteers has to sit down, face-to-face, with each person involving volunteers, talk to them directly, and create a map, literally or figuratively, of how different volunteers in different programs are currently recruited, tracked and supported.

And after all of the above is done, only then is it time to start developing the actual strategy, and that’s where I would love your crowdsourcing in particular:

— Having every volunteer meet with the overall manager of volunteers is unrealistic, IMO – Habitat for Humanity doesn’t do that, SOLVE here in Oregon, which recruits huge numbers of volunteers to clean up beaches and trails and parks, doesn’t do that, etc. Each of the organizations I’m working with needs to identify exactly what kind of volunteer can have minimal screening and tracking, and exactly what kind needs to be strictly screened and supervised, and everything in between – and this needs to be clearly communicated, in writing, and enforced – meaning there are consequences for managers that don’t do it. What do you think enforcement/consequences would look like? If you had to do this – how did you get buy-in?
(I know how to advise them re: what volunteers need what level of screening).

— Do any of you have similar scenarios regarding distributed management of volunteers, and therefore have a central database where every volunteer registers himself or herself? Do they register by an onsite computer? Their smartphone? What software do you use? Do volunteers also use the database to report their hours, or only to register as volunteers? How do you ensure all volunteers are in the database? (I have my own ideas regarding all this, but would really like to hear yours!)

— What other advice would you have for this organization to get all those working with volunteers to buy-in to a more formal system of tracking volunteers? and what other advice do you have regarding tools they can use?

I will compile all answers, including my own, and share them with the organizations – and via my web site or this blog, if the comments section gets too unwieldy.

vvbooklittleOf course, there are also tips in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. about managing remote staff – both online volunteers, who do most of their service online, and remote volunteers, who do their service in a physical onsite location remote to the organization and who provide updates and interact with HQ staff primiarily online.

One thought on “Tracking distributed volunteers (& their distributed managers)

  1. Meridian Swift

    Hi. This is an interesting scenario. I was team lead over a diverse set of volunteer managers for many years. Each one had unique creative ideas and challenges but everyone would benefit from the varied knowledge. My suggestion would be for the overall manager to meet with the entire group if possible in order to compile best practices that each manager can agree upon and write policy from there to ellicit buy in. They could even impose a revisit period in order to amend and change the policies that are not working. That way, instead of an edict, policy becomes a collaborative effort in which everyone contributes.

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