One worry of a nonprofit that relies on its membership for volunteers is how to make sure a given volunteer is going to work out. Volunteer coordinators can be left with volunteers who do not match a given job—and sometimes who match no job. What can be done? And how could this have been prevented?
Although nonprofits and volunteers differ, I’ve learned—sometimes the hard way—what some of the characteristics of good volunteer practice are.
1. The set of volunteers for a task is fit for purpose.
First, volunteers must be up to the job. They must have the competencies they need, starting with the challenges facing them. What are the skills, knowledge, and experience the volunteers need? How well matched are current volunteers’ attributes to their current needs? The volunteer coordinator must have this information available, as must the membership. Information such as this can provide a valuable pre-vetting role, in effect allowing for a given member’s self-vetting before applying, which saves time and effort and prevents disappointment.
Although few volunteer coordinators have complete control over their own membership and thus their volunteer base, boards can increase their membership’s awareness of the current strengths and relative weaknesses found in the volunteer base. For good practice, volunteer coordinators also need active onboarding processes that ensure new volunteers are integrated and trained. Individuals should be able to participate in volunteer roles and be effective contributors from the day they start.
2. Roles are clear and provided in documents available to all.
Simply put, a volunteer coordinator has the responsibility of providing effective direction and control to one or more non-board volunteers. There will be some pointers to this in most organization’s documents, especially if the organization has developed to the point of understanding its need for a volunteer coordinator. Equally, a volunteer has the responsibility of providing the organization with the agreed-upon work. What both need is job information against which they can align members’ (generally) and volunteers’ (specifically) expectations. An effective volunteer coordinator ensures that this is a live document that provides real-time guidance in the conduct of volunteer activities.
3. Organizational purpose is clearly defined and provided in documents available to all.
Nonprofit institutions exist to serve a mission, and volunteers offer their help to further that mission. Any board of directors that cannot state clearly why its organization exists is not going to be able to rally volunteers to service. In addition, this clear statement of purpose must be included in the documents given to volunteers. What is the organization’s purpose, who does it benefit, and how? Plain and simple, this is good governance. Clarity helps decision making, including down to the level of the individual volunteer: if the organization’s mission resonates with the individual, it is easier for the individual to commit time and effort (and sometimes money) to the position.
4. The volunteer coordinator has skillful use of policy leverage.
Volunteer coordinators may have full-time accountability for everything done by the volunteers. Some decisions cannot wait until they receive a time slot on the agenda of the next board meeting. Volunteer coordinators need a way to make decisions that affect volunteers, which means the board must be willing to devolve that decision-making power. Boards can do this by, first, defining what the volunteer coordinator is to achieve, and second, what the volunteer coordinator should avoid. In other words, boards need to know clearly what they want and what they don’t want. Getting the thoughts of experienced volunteer coordinators is important when developing the policies for the devolving of decision making.
5. No-surprises policy plus teamwork with the board and other high-level stakeholders is standard practice.
The relationship between the volunteer coordinator and the board can be delicate at times. The volunteer coordinator is caught between the real-life needs of the volunteers and the high-level aspirations of the event or practice that the board has established and for which the volunteers have been called. The board depends on the volunteer coordinator to distribute resources so that the volunteers can produce results. Boards and volunteer coordinators learn quickly where the weak points are. For good governance, boards must be explicit about their volunteer coordinator’s responsibilities and degree of decision-making autonomy. Using an active, transparent evaluation process and open, honest communication will help, and should things go pear shaped, clarity and detachment—and possibly a third party called in to help—can make cleanup easier. From the start, a no-surprises policy, where information is shared regardless of repercussions, can keep larger problems from growing out of smaller ones.
6. Strong, informative reports get sent to the board.
Volunteer coordinators largely work outside of the board’s regular meetings. During a given event where volunteers are working, the volunteer coordinator should be closely involved, but the board should be hands off. Strong, informative reports to the board both before and after events help the volunteer coordinator be intentional about how volunteer time is spent. These reports, as part of the organization’s institutional memory, give the board firm basis for both the present and the future.
7. Volunteers receive information tailored to their needs.
A common volunteer refrain is that they do not feel fully informed, and they worry that the board is equally uninformed. There may be some truth to this: Board members often complain that they receive poor-quality information even when receiving high-quantity information, which can lead to boards dipping into the work that has been delegated to non-board members. Good volunteer coordinator practice filters information to volunteers so that it is appropriate for their needs while providing a view of the larger purpose, and equally importantly, providing solid, actionable information to the board via reports (see #6 above).
8. Volunteer performance is under active review.
Performance reviews for volunteers can be tricky for volunteer coordinators to handle. On the one hand, volunteers are just that—voluntary workers—and judging them by external standards may seem inappropriate. On the other hand, organizations suffer when volunteers are wrongly assigned, not only because morale suffers but also because the organization’s image can suffer. Letting volunteers know that reviews are intended to support the organization’s broader strategy may relieve some of their apprehension. Ensuring that reviews employ the “praise/instruct/evaluate” model can also help. Ultimately, good boards use performance reviews that are appropriate for volunteers and board appointees.