How-to's of supporting volunteers to be most effective, whether in a direct supervising relationship or in partnering, coaching, and other teamwork roles. Includes evaluating individual volunteer performance.

12 Basic Needs of Every Volunteer, Helen Little, Volunteers: How to Get Them, How to Keep Them, pp. 44-45, Panacea Press
Beginning with Day One, Sally Gardner Reed, Library Volunteers, McFarland & Company
Consultation/Listening, Debra Allcock Tyler, It's Tough at the Top: The no-fibbing guide to leadership, Directory of Social Change
Cultivation and Critique, Claudia Kuric and Sharon Koll, with contributions by Myrl Weinberg, A Roadmap to Managing Volunteer Systems: From Grassroots to National, National Health Council
Demand Excellence, Dr. Bill Wittich, pp. 43-44, Knowledge Transfer Publishing
Eight Myths About Difficult Volunteers, Sue Vineyard, New Competencies for Volunteer Administrators, pp. 92-93, Heritage Arts Publishing
Expectations for Behavior, Sue Vineyard and Steve McCurley, Best Practices for Volunteer Programs: Best Ideas from Best Programs, pp. 58-59, Heritage Arts
Greetings And Communications, Veronica Knight, Glen W. White, and A. Katherine Froehlich, Training Manual for Working with Youth Volunteers Who Have Disabilities
Maintaining Communication Linkages with Volunteers, Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch, pp. 149-50, INTERPUB Group
Older Volunteers Aging in Place, Jarene Frances Lee with Julia M. Catagnus, p.108, Energize, Inc
Preparing for the Volunteer's First Day, Susan J. Ellis, Focus on Volunteering Kopykit, Energize, Inc./Parlay International
Providing a Sense of Control to Volunteers, Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch, Keeping Volunteers, pp. 44-5, Fat Cat Publications
Reprimanding Volunteers, Steve McCurley and Sue Vineyard, Handling Problem Volunteers, Heritage Arts Publishing/VMSystems
A Volunteer Needs a Good Reason for Doing the Task, Helen Little, Volunteers: How to Get Them, How to Keep Them, pp 37-38, Panacea Press
Volunteer Retention, Susan J. Ellis, Appeared as an "On Volunteers" column in The NonProfit Times
The Volunteer Shelf Life, Meridian Swift, pp. 55-7, Meridian Swift
Volunteer/Staff Ratios and Relations, Sarah Jane Rehnborg, et. al., pp. 28-30, RGK Center for Philanthropy & Community Service
WHO IS THE NEW BREED OF VOLUNTEER? A Profile of the 21st Century Volunteer, Jonathan McKee and Thomas McKee, ch. 1, pp.3-24, Group Publishing, Inc.
Who Supervises?, James C. Fisher and Kathleen M. Cole, Leadership and Management of Volunteer Programs, pp.120-121, Jossey-Bass

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Book cover

A compendium of the best techniques for leading volunteer engagement, proven to work in a myriad of settings.

from Marla Benson of Volunteer Relations Consulting Group. 2016.

Quick Tips from Susan J. Ellis

Assessing Volunteer Performance
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

No one wants to volunteer time uselessly. One way to respect this principle is by periodically assessing how well volunteers are performing assigned work, both to applaud valuable effort and to improve or correct problems.

Call the process something other than an "evaluation," which conjures up memories of student report cards (or pay raise conferences) and emphasizes the past. Instead, use more neutral phrases, such as Mutual Assessment, Progress Plan, or the Where-Are-We? Check-in.

Think of volunteer performance assessment as recognition. Any constructive feedback you give to volunteers will help them do better...and therefore to contribute more productively. If you do not point out errors, you allow volunteers to waste their time - hardly what any of you want.

Apply the process to all volunteers fairly and equitably. Tell all new volunteers that assessment is a routine part of the work because everyone wants to provide the best services.

Be sure that the evaluation process is two-way. This is a great opportunity to learn about your organization from the volunteers' perspective. (Remember how we keep saying that volunteers bring us a fresh point of view?)

Start from the Position Description

Without a written volunteer position description to which the volunteer committed at the beginning of service, there is no basis upon which to determine if a volunteer was successful or not in fulfilling an assignment.

So start by revisiting the volunteer position description:

  • What was actually accomplished since the volunteer signed on? What was not and why?
  • What did the volunteer do (positive or negative) that was not in the original position description?
  • How should the position description be revised to accommodate changes in the work since it was written?
  • Is there need for more training or additional resources to support greater success?

Engage the volunteer in considering how to resolve any possible concerns. When possible, and if you think a volunteer would welcome it, offer some alternatives to keep things fresh: the chance to take a break and work temporarily on a special project; help to update the training new volunteers in the same role receive; advance into a leadership position; transfer to another department. Or, recommit to the assignment for another period of time.

Be Prepared to Take Action

Individual evaluations often surface unexpected issues. Are you prepared to correct poor performance? If not, you send a message to all other volunteers that their hard work is not valued. You also send a message to paid staff that they cannot expect quality standards of volunteers.

Are you ready to respond to identified needs? Can you give additional training to volunteers? What happens if the process shows the need for further training of paid staff? What if there is not enough work space or access to onsite computers? In other words, if there are obstacles preventing volunteers from doing their best, will you advocate for changes?

Look ahead, not back. This is an opportunity for re-commitment and is best approached as a form of recognition. Celebrate volunteer accomplishments! But be willing, too, to deal directly with possible problems, whatever the source.

"Interactive Modeling" Technique for Dealing with Supervision Problems
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

Many years ago I was taught something called
"interactive modeling" as a supervisory technique for dealing with problem behavior. It's deceptively simple but powerful in its effectiveness. Not only does it work with volunteers and employees, but you can use it on family members, too!

There are seven steps and the key is to do them in sequence. It may take more than one meeting to work through them all.

Step 1: Tell the volunteer there is a problem. Explain why it is a problem for you and the organization.

Surprisingly, this is harder than it sounds. Knowing that we are meeting to focus on a concern is uncomfortable, so we talk about the weather, a new movie - anything to slow down getting to the real subject (all the while the volunteer knows
"something's coming"). Pleasantly but succinctly, state your concern. But do not assume the volunteer knows why it's problematic! This may sound crazy, but unless you explain what makes the behavior a problem, you cannot be sure you are "solving" the same issue. Example:

You've been late several times this week. This makes our clients wait for the service they need and forces the staff to keep them occupied until you arrive.

The VERY important thing to remember is to only discuss the problem, not any possible solution at this point (e.g., do not add to the above: "...and you must start being on time").

Step 2: Agree on the problem.

If you both accept what you stated in step 1, you can move forward. But what if the volunteer says:

Well, I started coming in on time, but most often I ended up sitting around for 30 minutes or so. Did the staff really say they were waiting for me?

You can see how this response immediately changes the situation. It would lead you a different game plan than a response such as:

I'm so sorry. I thought I could get here at 9:30 but the traffic is worse than I expected.

Do not move to another step until you both agree on what the issue really is. Then...

Step 3: Ask the volunteer for a suggested solution.

The goal is get the volunteer to be the leader of the solution, not just do what you direct. Besides, the ideas she or he offers may be very good. If she or he can't come up with a possible plan right away, stop the meeting and reschedule in a few days to give the person a chance to think.

Step 4: Add your thoughts and negotiate a solution.

Just because the volunteer suggests something does not mean you have to accept it. But be open to the possibility that the suggestion may have merit. Respond with your ideas and go back and forth until you both agree on the plan.

Step 5: Agree on a timetable for implementation. Schedule when you will talk again.

The volunteer may feel on the spot and wish to make the conversation as short as possible, thereby agreeing to anything. So it's vital that - before you end the meeting - you agree on when the new plan or behavior will start. Also fix a time after that to talk again and see if it's working.

Step 6: Document the interaction.

After the volunteer leaves, write down your recollection of the conversation. Save a copy to file, just in case the negative situation escalates and you need to document the "case" for removing the volunteer. But, more positively, also send your minutes to the volunteer as a follow up, with a note such as: "so glad we had the chance to talk and here's what we agreed to do together."

Step 7: Follow up as agreed and:

  • Praise progress and reinforce the plan. Or....
  • If things haven't changed or have worsened, you have a new and different problem: "What we decided together hasn't worked." Return to Step 1 and start again.


Successful Delegation
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

One of the most important skills needed to be effective in working with volunteers (or, for that matter, in working with paid colleagues and even members of your family) is that of delegation. Here are some reminders of what it takes to share work successfully, adapted from a section on delegation in The (Help!) I-Don't-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management:

One of the most important skills needed to be effective in working with volunteers (or, for that matter, in working with paid colleagues and even members of your family) is that of delegation. Here are some reminders of what it takes to share work successfully, adapted from a section on delegation in The (Help!) I-Don't-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management:

  • Recruit the most appropriate person (or team) genuinely willing to handle the task. Don't fall into the trap of settling for the nearest available warm body.
  • Discuss the work to be done in detail, negotiate how it will be done (as well as the end product), and then create a written assignment description.
  • Define your role in relation to the delegated project, too.
  • Tasks you assign to others should be concrete and manageable, with clearly-defined timeframes and deadlines. Define complex tasks in stages, so that people can feel a sense of achievement as each benchmark is reached.
  • Tell the truth about the time required to do the job properly and your expectations for when it should be finished. Similarly, whenever possible, assign the whole task at once, rather than revealing something new each week.
  • Give people titles to match the responsibility they will be handling, and then consistently refer to these titles yourself.
  • Give the person/team information that sets the task into context. People work more intelligently when they understand how their activities mesh with the activities of others, or how a new task builds on a previous one and, in turn, brings the organization closer to its goals.
  • Identify and provide access to resources and materials the person/group can use to get the job done.
  • Never underestimate the importance of good instructions. A basic part of training, instructions are the key to starting a job. Do not assume that anyone, particularly a volunteer, is completely familiar with your office procedures, policies, legal regulations, or anything else affecting a task. Instructions can include samples of similar work; knowing how something was done in the past is a great beginning point for a new job.
  • Discuss some alternate contingency plans, should an original tactic not be successful.
  • Set limits: At what point must you be consulted or involved, approve expenditures, receive progress reports?
  • Remove limits: Encourage people to exercise creativity and initiative in those areas where there are no hard and fast rules to be followed, or where you feel they have adequate expertise.
  • Develop a reporting plan: How often and in what form (e-mail, phone, face-to-face in person or online with webcam) will you communicate with each other about progress? Negotiate the frequency of contact necessary to offer mutual feedback and support.
    • Do not ignore silence (and don't be silent yourself). Communication is the most important element in a successful collaboration. It allows both of you to feel that you are on track and, if a problem arises, it will not fester. Volunteers feel more appreciated when they know you are aware of their efforts.
  • Once you've delegated, don't undercut the independence of the team member. For example, refer all questions about the delegated project to the person responsible.
  • Make it a condition of starting a task that the volunteer commit to training his/her successor or replacement. Though this may not always work perfectly because of the frequent time lag between needing a volunteer and finding one, people should know they are expected to help assure a project's continuity. Therefore they might even return to your organization for a day or two to help train the new team member. Another strategy is to ask team members to keep a written record of their procedures that can be passed on to their successors. None of us wants to think our hard work will be lost indefinitely, so passing the torch is satisfying.
  • When you begin a new delegation, set a time to meet or talk again fairly soon. This appointment provides an incentive to the team member to make some progress by then and gives you the opportunity to assure yourself that things are off to a good start.


Submitted by Carmel C. Maloney, The Blooming Lodge

The Volunteer Leadership Training Program in Olds, Alberta, is sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, The Wildrose Foundation and Olds College. The participants are asked to journal their experiences. Journalling, I believe,could be a valuable tool for supervisors. The following Journal questions may be valid:

  • What did you do today?
  • What was the purpose of your task?
  • Was your objective met?
  • What worked well?
  • What could be changed?
  • Whom did you assist?
  • Whom did you report to?
  • What tools, supplies, etc. do/did you need?
  • Was the time adequate for the task? If not, why not?
  • Where your tools, supplies, etc. adequate?
  • What learning/observations did you have?
  • What were the benefits from this activity?
  • Did you gain any new skills? If so, what were they?
  • Was training adequate for the position/activity?
  • Would you recommend this activity again?

Asking volunteers to do reflective journalling could identify important needs for the agency, client, and volunteer:

  • Is the volunteer contract being fulfilled?
  • Is the training adequate or is more/less required?
  • What tools/supplies are needed for the task?
  • Are the volunteer's needs being met?
  • Are the agency's needs being met?
  • Are the client's needs being met?
  • What could we (client, agency, and volunteer) do better?
Supervising in Several Locations
Submitted by Linda

Supervising over 500 volunteers working in several locations became a real volunteer management challenge.The volunteer program staff consist of the Volunteer Director and one other person. I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out a way to collect statistics, nurture, retain, and promote connection between volunteers and staff. The real life example of getting help was right there.; VOLUNTEERS. We now have volunteers in management.

We refer to them as team leaders. Each team leaders is a seasoned volunteer with a thorough knowledge of oour agency, its mission, goals, policies and procedures. Our teams are composed of up to 20 volunteers and team leaders are a highly effective link between the agency and the volunteer program. Team leaders ensure that volunteers are fully aware of agency policies , alert them new or revised procedures, pass along agency communication, collect statistics, phone volunteers once a month, meet with volunteers quarterly, etc. The Volunteer Director, on the other hand, meet with team leaders. This is only the beginning of a beautiful connection.

Supervising Through E-mail
Submitted by Sheryl Simons, Women's Information Service, Inc. , Michigan, USA

I use e-mail like crazy. Most volunteers have it, and with the number of recruits I have, I don't have time for phone contact. I send out weekly (at least) emails to let everyone know what's going on. I ALWAYS thank volunteers for how they have directly help the clients, not how they have helped staff, or the organization. They are there to help us, they want to help the clients directly, so that's what I focus on. It really changes the whole attitude of volunteering and produces a greater response!

Twelve Rules for Working with Volunteers
Submitted by Bob Eilenfeldt, YMCA , Texas, USA

1. Just Ask
There are always people who are willing to volunteer to help. All you have to do is ask.

2. Be Prepared
Nothing will kill the passion of a volunteer faster than to arrive at a volunteer event and find the staff not prepared. Have the materials and venue ready for the volunteers well in advance of their arrival.

3. Be Organized
Thoroughly organize your volunteer activities so that you can make best use of their time. If volunteers find themselves standing around without anything to do, they will quickly leave and not come back.

4. Delegate
Don’t be afraid to ask a volunteer to help prepare and organize the volunteer event

5. Communicate
Communicate the volunteer event well in advance and then send a reminder. E-Mail is your most efficient form of communication. Even though your branch is not set up on e-mail, start accumulating E-mail addresses now!

6. Know your Volunteers
Know which volunteers you can count on. Then, know all volunteers names at an event. Use name tags if necessary.

7. Involve your Staff
Make your staff part of all volunteer events. It is good for the volunteers to see the staff participating and good for the staff to be a part of the event.

8. Involve your Board
The Board should be your best source of volunteers and leadership. Use them.

9. Involve the Family
For major volunteers events, have activities planned for the spouses and children.

10. Feed the Volunteers
Solicit donations from local food sources. Pastry and Juice in the morning, a simple lunch at noon.

11. Recognize the Volunteers
A simple thank you goes a long way. Acknowledge the volunteer’s contribution in your newsletter, on the bulletin board, in the board minutes, or with a short note signed by you and the Board Chairperson.

12. Form Volunteer Councils
For each of your major programs, form a volunteer council. This council will then provide the volunteer leadership for that particular program.

When is it time to dismiss or terminate a volunteer?
Submitted by Lilia L. Lopez, State of NJ Judiciary , New Jersey, USA

When a volunteer is part of team and undermines the goals of the program and the credibility of fellow volunteers and hinders its process,it's time to let the person go. Just because the persons volunteers, doesn't mean that you have to keep the person dirupting the program. It's best to terminate the one individual volunteer than to lose the other volunteers in the team.

Working with Chlidren

One on one with children
Submitted by Debra Lynne, The Children's Aid Society , New York, New York, USA

Volunteers who work one-to-one with children want to have an impact on the child's life and usually have very high hopes and expectations of themselves. Therefore it is important for the supervisor to clearly outline what the role is and what it is not. This includes outlining the boundaries of the relationship, which are sometimes quite "soft" and hard to define. A tutor's job is easier to define than a mentor's. The supervisor also has to be clear about the support s/he will provide so that the volunteer knows what to expect from the supervisor.

Supervisors need to be clear about the do's and don'ts. Boundaries are healthy and necessary for many reasons, among them liability and risk management. Supervisors need to articulate the needs of the client and identify how the volunteer can help. Because volunteering with children can be both rewarding and frustrating the good supervisor needs to be a cheerleader. The volunteers have high expectations of themselves and will look for signs of progress, which they may not necessarily see. The supervisor must continuously encourage and support, while also providing gentle and sometimes direct guidance.

Supervisors of volunteers in one-to-one relationships also need to ask the volunteer, "How are things going and how can I help?" Often volunteers don't ask for help because they don't know what to ask for. Supervisors also need to help the volunteer identify what approaches are working in order to provide encouragement. It is important to say things like, "I have noticed an improvement in Maria's self-confidence. You are really making an impact."

Supervisors also need to be sensitive to volunteers' frustrations and boost their morale with words like, "I know it's hard to keep Joe's attention, but you are doing a great job. Here are a few other ways to...." Supervising one-to-one volunteers is high maintenance work. The volunteers are providing a service that the family and the school cannot provide. If your agency has put a lot of time and effort into screening and training the volunteers, then it is only logical to also put time and effort into nurturing and supporting them. A good supervisor will make volunteers feel welcome, appreciated, supported by boundaries and guidance.

Refrain from emotional involvement
Submitted by Laura J. King, The Children's Inn at NIH , Bethesda, Marlyand, USA

Supervisors need to advise volunteers to refrain from becoming emotionally involved with the children and their families and also help them learn how to do this. The more the volunteers know about a child's illness the more difficult it is to remain detached. If volunteers get attached and the child dies, the emotional toll can be overwhelming. If the volunteer experiences this repeatedly the result can be burnout or stress. To prevent this we encourage volunteers to enjoy and share "in the moment" when interacting with a child: to focus on the child and the activity they are sharing rather than on the disease; to focus on the present, not the future.

Supervisors also need to limit the amount of time volunteers give, especially when they are new. Taking on too much too soon can also lead to burnout. Supervisors can also help volunteers cope with some of the negative experiences they will have. Family members are under a lot of stress and may be angry, rude, abrupt and insensitive. They may not treat volunteers with kindness and appreciation. Volunteers need to be coached on how to avoid taking this personally and how to give support and comfort to families, too. Finally, supervisors have to be willing to offer emotional support to volunteers when they are having a rough day. Giving volunteers a hug or a pat on the back or listening attentively as them talk through their pain is essential.