February 14, 2016
I take an inward groan when I hear tell of organisations having trouble recruiting the volunteer numbers they would like. Over the years of my volunteering experience I have found the trouble is not in the nuts and bolts process of recruitment, it’s more about the lack of engagement with the volunteer.
I reckon most managers of volunteers have got the hang of the basics, like policies and job descriptions and training. We all know (don’t we?) about targeted recruitment, sending out the best message, through a variety of media, and of course asking current volunteers to spread the word. But what happens next, when the new willing-hands go up, is the critical point.
I’m talking about ‘getting engaged’. Not in any romantic sense, you understand, simply establishing a relationship between volunteer and the programme manager, between the volunteer and the organisation and its staff.
Except it seems this is not so simple. Here’s my list of would-be-volunteer songs that are too often left unsung in accepted practice.
I make a call or email the organisation’s contact person, and I never hear back.
If there is an interview it is all a bit perfunctory, concluding with an urgent tone of ‘when can you start?’
If I ask what sort of work there is on offer, either the tasks turn out to be pretty meaningless or the volunteer role is glossed over as being easy to pick up. A job description is not always available.
When I take up this rather vague arrangement I discover my work shifts are not always regular and there are frequent short-notice requests for extra assignments.
I can get to know a few of the other volunteers, the one’s I work with, but it’s hard to learn the names of staff, and they seem to belong in a different world.
And I’d really like a bit more of a connection than the irregular group message via social media that offers a collective thanks, or (more-likely) instructions to correct errors some volunteers have made. I never hear why my volunteer effort is important and what we have achieved for the organisation.
Sadly, this litany of bad news stories is not uncommon: see this satirical video for a reality check. It leaves a sour taste for would-be volunteers, and a bad press for the organisation. And it does not do volunteerism any good.
So what do I mean by ‘engaging’ with volunteers? Clearly there are some straightforward steps to counter the negatives above. Better still, is the effort put into establishing a relationship with volunteers.
This means an interview with a new volunteer is about a welcome and a two-way discussion to see if the interests of both sides are going to come to mutual satisfaction, to meet in the middle. And that’s just the beginning. Yes, police and referee checks might need to be done, but that relationship-building continues with orientation to the organisation, introductions to staff, and to a training programme.
We could say this is the ‘courting’ stage of an engagement. All the time we are getting to know each other, checking out likes and dislikes, strengths and vulnerabilities. We are building mutual trust and respect, and when volunteers share their personal circumstances and other commitments we get a steer on how they will fit into the organisation and how to draw on their skills and experience. When you think of the variety of volunteer backgrounds, and their range of motivations, this relationship-building period becomes even more important.
Of course the engagement is just the beginning. Any relationship needs regular maintenance, and for volunteers that means enjoying their work and knowing their efforts are appreciated. Paid staff will welcome volunteers by name when they begin their shifts, and offer a sincere thank you when leaving. Volunteers are invited to give feedback and to contribute ideas and new initiatives to the organisation. In turn, volunteers are supported in their work, know the process for resolving disputes, and are kept informed about organisation developments.
None of this stuff is over-the-top difficult to accomplish. It does imply that a manager of volunteers needs to be a ‘people person’ with well-honed communication skills. But aren’t these qualities what everyone needs when they are involved in the community and voluntary sector? And while some organisations have grown to corporate size, and as pressures increase for businesslike operations, engaging volunteers and maintaining healthy relationships with them will never go away.