Cultivation and Critique

By Claudia Kuric and Sharon Koll, with contributions by Myrl Weinberg
From A Roadmap to Managing Volunteer Systems: From Grassroots to National, National Health Council, 2000

Assume you have hired a great match to fill a position at your organization. What can you now do to ensure success? Many times, failure in both staff and volunteer management happens in the area of communication about expectations. What measurement programs do you have that speak to the growth and evaluation of employees and volunteers? What systems do you have to help understand current abilities in necessary competencies, and how can staff build on them?

It is important to view this area as involving two distinct processes. Cultivation is an ongoing process. It begins with the orientation of each employee and volunteer; and continues with on-the-job learning and professional development. Critique is a cyclical process. The employee/volunteer and the supervisor periodically discuss and review progress on defined objectives.

As avid proponents of an ongoing system of performance management, we advise associations to not only utilize a behavioral interviewing system, but to have an internal process of performance management that includes:

  • periodic discussions separate from appraisal about how things are going;
  • an ongoing development plan; and
  • a yearly appraisal that is well thought out and measurable.

At this point, many people usually roll their eyes and say, "we don't have time." Yet, statistics on the reasons and costs of turnover point to the lack of management guidance and mentoring on a regular basis. You choose what you have time for - turnover; which has a high cost, or a high performance work system, which includes all the elements of the human resource function.

Voluntary health agencies and other nonprofit organizations have long recognized the importance of cultivating donors and knowing their donors' needs, wants and interests. It has become just as important to cultivate and then get to know both paid staff and volunteers in the same way. If their needs and interests are not met, they may simply choose to go elsewhere.

So now you have brought this person on board. The easy part is done. Some years ago a consulting colleague, John Scherer, shared his story of the "mating dance of the Watusi bird." He related that, as this bird is first trying to find its mate, it fluffs up, dances and puts its best feathers forward. So it is in the first stages of all relationships, work or social. We see the relationship from the viewpoint of "life is great, I am good, and I want this relationship to work."

Then it happens: Once on board, we tend to lose our perspective of making that relationship the focal point. This happens time and again in the workplace, when product becomes the focal point, and the relationship is secondary. However, research studies have shown that interpersonal relationships are a critical component of how work gets done. Today we have direct evidence that people bounce from one organization to another based on what fuels them - usually respect and recognition for what they bring to a particular role. One recent study by WorkforceOnline found that people do not leave companies, they leave managers (see Bibliography).

Let's piece it all together. As a manager of volunteers, you more often than not will be managing short-term, episodic volunteers. You have only a short time to cultivate the relationship. However; if the experience is a good one, they will recommit to another short-term episodic experience. What are you doing to bring them up to speed on their role and expectations? Orientation? Event specifics? How will they recognize success? Do you really know who they are and what makes them happy?

Related Topics:
Permission is granted to download and reprint this material. Reprints must include all citations and the statement: "Found in the Energize online library at"