Maintaining Communication Linkages with Volunteers

By Steve McCurley and Rick Lynch
From Volunteer Management: Mobilizing All the Resources of the Community, INTERPUB Group, 2011, pp. 149-50

Supervising people who work away from your office requires proactive efforts at communication. The main danger is that people will become alienated from the organization and develop an "us versus them" attitude. Consider the following suggestions:

People in isolated or separated settings will naturally have more communication problems than those who are gathered in one spot. The smart supervisor will simply plan for this difficulty and adjust to compensate. Generally speaking, processes will take longer, will include a greater chance or misunderstanding, and will need to be managed more carefully.

Workers in isolated or separated settings are prone to develop fears about their degree of inclusion in the system. They will worry about whether they are being kept informed of things (both as decisions are considered and after they are made) and whether their input is sought and valued.

Withholding information from your people creates a sense in them of having second class status. Secrets are the bricks in the walls between people. People from whom information is withheld will go to extraordinary lengths to either obtain the information or to create their own versions of what is going on.

When decisions that affect people are being made, efforts should be undertaken to involve those people in the decision-making process. Bringing people together for interaction is the best way to accomplish this. At this stage of development, technology can supplement but not totally replace face-to-face communication. For many people, written communication is not an adequate substitute.

The longer it takes for a decision to be made at the central office, the more left out people outside will feel. The more important the response, the longer the response time will seem. Strive to get back quickly to those in the field, if only to deliver an interim response. Remember that they can't "see" that you're doing something with their message; to them no response will seem as though they are being ignored.

Much of communication in an office takes place by osmosis--we learn things simply because we are in the vicinity of their occurrence. A supervisor in headquarters is in a much better position to learn via osmosis than a field worker and a smart supervisor proactively attempts to pass along as much information as possible to the field. It is better to pass more information than is needed than to give the field a sense that you are restricting their access to information.

Good communication should be viewed as a “web” connecting all within the system—it should function up, down, sideways and across. If you do not design your system to function this way, your workers will re-engineer it to do so, and will probably leave you out of their design.

Claims by central office staff that it is "difficult" to communicate effectively and swiftly with geographically separated workers will never be believed by those in the field. After all, we are all joined by a highly unofficial "rumor mill which communicates instantaneously.

Communication and bonding strategies are often the same. One CASA program, for example, assigns each of its board members to communicate with a small group of field-placed volunteers. Each month the board member is to have some type of communication with each of their assigned volunteers, either in person via an individual or group meeting or on the phone. This gives field volunteers an opportunity to communicate with an important "personage" and creates a sense of teamwork. It also gives the board members something "real" to do and gives them a true sense of what is happening in the organization at the work level.

Uniformity should not be pursued as an end in itself. Use what works, which may be very different with volunteers in different situations. As a supervisor your job is to find a method of communication which works.

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