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Part-time Volunteer Management Means Equally Limited Volunteer Involvement
It is hardly news that the majority of people who lead volunteer involvement are expected to do so part-time. This means they may be full-time employees, but they are tasked with one or more major responsibilities in addition to volunteer management. This was the situation 40 years ago when I started in the field; unfortunately, it seems to be getting worse rather than better.
The struggle to devote undivided attention to volunteers is worldwide. The problem is being discussed across North America and in every country I've visited this year, including last month's European Conference on Volunteering. Although there is a general calling for greater engagement of volunteers – especially by politicians – we are moving backwards in terms of allocating resources for staff leadership of volunteers. It is getting close to a professional crisis.
Why this Is Happening
There is a serious disconnect between an organization's desire to engage volunteers and an understanding of how much expertise and time are needed to assure success. Even in the best economy, what a volunteer services manager actually does is only vaguely understood by colleagues and executives – and rarely valued. So when budgets are cut back, this position is quickly on the list of less "essential" staff, more of a luxury than a necessity.
This attitude was illustrated for me years ago when I was scheduled to speak at a volunteer recognition luncheon for a large hospital. About a week before the event, the DVS called me to say that she had been laid off in a general staff cutting action, but had been forbidden from telling anyone of her imminent departure. During the luncheon, she was expected to be bright and cheerful in front of the volunteers, although the hospital had not yet decided on who would be assigned the responsibility for the volunteer corps! I called her boss to express my concern, she responded with some irritation: "I don’t understand why you think there is a problem; clearly we have the volunteers already." (And clearly, I decided not to speak at this event!) It goes without saying that they laid off no one in their HR department, as they did not apply the same logic to paid staff.
Executives frequently draw wrong conclusions from too few facts. Here are some examples of what they think:
- Because most volunteers only work a few hours a week or less, managing a workforce of even several hundred "sporadic" volunteers is seen mainly as a scheduling task, not genuine leadership. Of course, the fact that every one of the several hundred volunteers needs to be brought on board, oriented, trained, kept motivated, thanked, evaluated, and more is overlooked. Not to mention that the person in charge of volunteers cannot decide simply to do this work on Thursdays. Because they give several hours on widely varying schedules, volunteers must be attended to when they are on duty. The volunteer resources manager works in a fishbowl of constant availability.
- Volunteers are thought of as "interchangeable parts," who can be welcomed and assigned in a uniform manner. Not so. Although most organizations want a diverse volunteer force, the effort needed to create effective roles for individual volunteers (teenagers, people over 80, graduate students, corporate employees serving in groups, etc., etc.) is simply underestimated.
- Volunteer resources managers are perceived as support staff, not strategic planning staff. This misconception stems from seeing the volunteer office as on stand-by to "help" when asked (which, in turn, means that even requesting volunteers takes up limited staff time). It is seldom understood that an energetic and creative volunteer resources manager can proactively determine agency needs and innovate a wide range of solutions with highly expert volunteers.
- Most organizations prefer gifts of money over donated skills. So all attention focuses on fundraising efforts, while volunteers are seen as "nice" but secondary. The connection between money donors and time donors is rarely recognized, nor are volunteers placed centrally on the continuum of an organization's supporters (friends, members, advocates)in the community. In other words, if the consequence of limited staff attention to volunteers is to have fewer volunteers, that is more acceptable than having less money.
- While volunteers may provide direct service to clients and consumers, the volunteer office is thought of as an indirect service. Reducing or refocusing its staff therefore seems as if it is not hurting clients or the public. Except, of course, that it inevitably leads to minimal volunteer contributions.
- Other professional offices seem to have a similar mandate, so it is assumed that there is already staff having sufficient expertise to manage volunteers. Public relations and marketing people can surely do recruitment, right? Human resources personnel know all about job descriptions and personnel policies, right? The development office raises financial support from the same community, right? Yes, but the special skills required to attract, screen, and motivate unpaid workers are not considered. Let alone the skills to encourage smooth collaboration between paid and unpaid staff.
So, are we surprised that decision makers cut back on volunteer management when trying to trim the budget of anything nice but not essential?
All of this faulty thinking applies whether the leader of volunteers role is eliminated, cut back to a part-time role, added as a secondary assignment to someone's existing job, or divided up among several staff positions. None of these options gives the professional courtesy of enough time to develop and implement a volunteer engagement strategy effectively. Inadequate staffing reveals a lack of organizational vision of volunteer participation as a powerful resource, leveraging focused leadership attention into far-reaching results.
Accept or Challenge?
A frequent theme of these Hot Topics is to advocate for common sense when faced with wrong-headed executive actions. Quietly accepting a cut in time devoted to managing volunteer resources (whether all or part) is the worst response! Acquiescence can easily be interpreted as agreement. Always remember that the main reason to stand up to a bad decision is on behalf of the volunteers who will ultimately be affected (rather than fighting a battle for yourself personally).
So, what can you do?
- Write your own detailed position description that goes beyond the terse overview you were given when hired. This should go into detail about the activities involved in each area. For example, "recruit new volunteers" may sound like a single task! In reality, it includes a long list of actions from developing community contacts to giving speeches at very different places to maintaining current postings on online registries. (Katie Campbell and I developed a generic "task analysis" of the role of volunteer resources manager in our book, The (Help!) I-Don’t-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management. It is 13 printed pages long!) By the way, if you are willing to share your own task analysis, please also submit it to www.oursharedresources.com, the growing repository sponsored by Volunteer2 of these sorts of real-life documents others can use as templates.
[This is something everyone should do right away! First, you’ll learn why you are so tired all the time! You will also begin to see how you can share your work with qualified volunteers, how you might make the case for a raise or an assistant, and also have started to prepare for a successor some day. It's an invaluable tool if you are asked to report to someone new who really has no idea what the scope of your role is.]
- Report your activities, not just those of volunteers. For example, a monthly report should include a list of speaking engagements, explanation of meetings to form collaboration agreements with community organizations, the number of screening interviews in the time period (which should be a larger number than how many new volunteers came on board), etc. In other words, explain what you do all day!
- Get your local network of volunteer administrators (whether a DOVIA, a state association, or other professional society) to develop a "position statement" on the limitations of part-time volunteer management. Do this in collaboration with your volunteer center or Hands On affiliate, if you have either. Bring in any academic who teaches volunteer management classes. The point is to create a public document with some credibility that goes on record about why volunteer management requires both a professional skill set and undivided attention by a designated staff person.
- Have you faced an attempt to reduce the time you spend on volunteer management? How did you react? Were you able to improve the situation?
- What other ideas do you have for making the case that volunteer management deserves full-time attention
Submitted on 14 November 2011 by Marcia Hale, Job Search/Outreach Coordinator, AmeriCorps @ Marylhurst University, Marylhurst OR, USA
As always Susan, spot on! I was recently interviewed for a Children's museum publication regarding volunteer management. One of the questions involved the steps to take to ensure success of the par- time volunteer coordinator position. My answer was to the point, "Make it full time!" My interviewer replied by saying "that would be a hard sell, as most of our museums are small and can't afford a full time person for that position".
My answer remains firm. If you are small and really need volunteers to fulfill your mission and you need them everyday, all day...then how can you expect to accomplish this when someone is only there part of the time? I stuck to my guns on this issue. And will always do so. Though I am not currently managing a volunteer program, I still consult and one of the first things I tell an organization that is building a program is to hire a full time, experienced volunteer program director. And the next thing I tell them is to pay them well and make them part of the decision making team (senior level management). That generally raises an eyebrow or two.
It astounds me that nonprofits claim to value their volunteer workforce so much (we couldn't do it without you!), but they are more than willing to do without providing the volunteers the professional support they deserve and require.
You know Susan, after reading your columns and benefiting from your wisdom since I began in volunteer management in 1991, I would have hoped things would have improved, but the struggle continues. I for one, continue to raise my voice high for the profession...it appears if we don't no one else does.
Submitted on 10 November 2011 by Krista B, VolunteerHub, USA
What an excellent article. All too often, the work of a volunteer coordinator is overlooked and undervalued. Sadly, as you mentioned, when the budget becomes tight these positions are sometimes the first to go.
Volunteer coordinators play a vital role in developing meaningful relationships with volunteers. In order to keep volunteers coming back, they must have a positive experience with the organization that they are donating their time (& sometimes money) to. Without a volunteer coordinator to provide some form of direction and carefully match volunteers to appropriate tasks - it's likely that the overall volunteer experience will fall short of expectations, and may even leave participants with a negative opinion of your organization. And, as someone pointed out in a prior comment, an unhappy volunteer can do great damage to an organization's reputation.
Have you read Susan's books? She's authored 11!
Outlines the key executive decisions necessary to lay the foundation for effective volunteer involvement: policies, budgeting, staffing, employee-volunteer relationships, legal issues, cost and value of volunteers, and more. Revised in 2010
Newly revised and updated, this book remains the only presentation of the full scope and depth of volunteer activity throughout three centuries of American history.
Volunteer Management Audit
A validating tool for analyzing the effectiveness of an organization's volunteer management practices, with complete Scoresheets and instructions to conduct the process successfully.
How to integrate volunteers under the age of 14 into an existing adult volunteer program: multi-age teams, designing work, preparing the agency, liaisoning with schools, and legal issues.
Managing a volunteer program part-time? Or just not enough hours in a day? Full task analysis of the job of volunteer program manager, how to build a management team and engage volunteers in leadership of the program.
A set of checklists, worksheets, idea stimulators, and other practical guides for senior-level leaders to incorporate volunteer involvement as a key ingredient in the overall strategy of an organization.