July 25, 2010

My Eight Best Lessons

Posted in Leading Volunteers, Managers Matter at 1:29 am by Sue Hine

It seems that most of us learn about managing volunteers on the job, and then go find what we really need to know afterwards.  Yes, there is a litany of tasks and responsibilities and organisational requirements, but it is what is not written down that can offer the hall-marks of being a great manager of volunteers.  Here is a list of my best practice principles which have never appeared in a job description and have never been examined in a performance appraisal.  You could call these principles my ‘management style’, and I did not know I had learned them until they became integral to the way I worked in managing volunteers.  They are my style, not a prescription for yours. 

But worthwhile I think, to read, and to figure what is important in the way you operate, what your management style looks like.

Lesson 1:  Being a Volunteer

Over the years I’ve had the best of times and the worst of times in volunteering.  So in managing volunteers I want to make sure volunteers feel connected with the organisation, they have a proper job description and a full understanding of their rights and responsibilities, they get acknowledged and recognised – something as simple as a greeting by name and a ‘thank you’ (repeatedly).  I want to ensure volunteers get support, whether it is a practical question of ‘what do I do next?’ or ‘how can I fix this?’, or the big stuff like ‘help, I am floundering, and I can’t handle this’.  

Lesson 2:  Being responsive

I’ve always thought it a common courtesy to answer asap the phone message, the email, the unsolicited inquiry or application form.  It is also good practice in managing volunteers because (1) I might just miss out on the best possible person to take that difficult-to-fill role, and (2) delay or not responding at all is not a good look for the organisation.  In the volunteer recruitment stakes the community grapevine is the make or break avenue for a community organisation. 

Lesson 3:  Get organised

Every manager, of volunteers or others, needs plans and processes, a work-plan design.  Get the policies in place, design the programme and create a template to guide whatever I have to do.  This attention to detail and a solid base became my most valuable assets for keeping on track.

Lesson 4:  Finding the computer database programme that best suited my needs

Thank goodness I did not have to start with a card system.  Once I learned the programme’s facilities I got used to sending mass emails, elegantly crafted newsletters, a mail-out of personalised letters – all at the touch of a button.  I could send out e-mail birthday greetings and thank you cards.  What a time-saver.  And there’s all that social media stuff out there to keep connected with volunteers, and for them to talk about their experiences, good and bad.  A good programme will also allow collation of data on volunteering, analysis of recruitment and retention, range of tasks, hours worked, travel distance, and almost any other statistic you can think of.  And we need to do this, to demonstrate the contribution of volunteers to the organisation.

Lesson 5:  Be flexible

Volunteers come in all shapes and sizes, for all sorts of reasons.  Managing volunteers is not so much finding a volunteer resource as making the most of what comes your way.  I also have to remember that everyone has their own way of doing things – my way is not necessarily the best.  Other people have initiative too – they can be leaders and managers within the volunteer programme.  It took me a while to learn this one, to understand I did not have to do everything on my own.  So there were volunteers who could take responsibility for different parts of office administration – like updating the database, telephone reception, organising the details of the next training programme, putting the newsletter together, event management.  We could get a real team thing going and I did not have to be ring-master any more. 

Lesson 6: Keep on learning, honing your skills and finding new resources

There’s always something new to learn, and old dogs can learn new tricks.  Trouble is I have to find out what I need to know and then get out there to find the best resource.  I started with Volunteer Centres, going to a network forum, meeting others, and soaking up the presentations on management processes.  It did not take me long to discover there is an international community promoting the profession of Management of Volunteers.  They’ve been around for going on for forty years now.  I have put some of the best links on my Resource Page.

Lesson 7:  Advocating for Volunteers

Of course, there are many organisations run entirely by volunteers.  But when there are paid staff there may be some subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle differences in attitudes to volunteers.  Mostly these attitudes rest on assumptions around the distinction between professionals and amateurs.  So I have to go into bat for the volunteers – who may be professionals in their own right.  The messages I like to spread around are (1) volunteers add value to the organisation, they enhance the services offered; and (2) they are ambassadors for your organisation in the community at large, they can make or break your reputation and credibility.

Lesson 8:  Know your Volunteers

This precept might seem a bit obvious, but it was the first lesson I had to learn – how to identify all the people on the roster beyond their names.  So there was a deliberate effort to meet them on site, even if it meant unfriendly work-hours, to find out how they like their job, to listen to their personal concerns and family context.  Volunteers got to learn a bit about me too, so we got a relationship thing going.  So when I needed to ask for a little bit extra I knew enough about volunteer circumstances to know who to call.  I also got a picture of extra skills and experience that did not appear on the application form – and was able to call up specialist expertise when needed.


1 Comment »

  1. Alison said,

    Thanks Sue for such wonderful food for thought. It was a great read and made me think ,yes I do that, and also hhhmmm there is an idea! This is the sort of stuff we all need to share so we can feel inspried and also challenged. I really appreciate you taking time giving us info like this to keep the motivation going-kia ora!


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