Recognizing Your Role

By Katherine Noyes Campbell and Susan J. Ellis
From The (Help!) I-Don't-Have-Enough-Time Guide to Volunteer Management, Energize Inc., 1995

This Guide is designed to help you step back and examine the responsibility you have been given to lead volunteers. This process begins with understanding the basic elements of effective volunteer management. In these pages you will not find information on how to do recruitment, screening, training or recordkeeping; rather, you will explore a practical strategy for adapting your role so that all these tasks can get done within the constraints of your available time. If you do need to build your basic skills in volunteer program development, the Appendix will direct you to helpful resources--both books and organizations.

The basic task elements of effective volunteer administration remain constant and must a be accomplished, regardless of the time available to do them. Unfortunately, too any people are given (and accept) the responsibility for directing volunteers without a understanding of what the job entails. Even with a written job description, major functions are all too often reduced to single words such as "recruit," "interview," "train," "recognize." This is based on two assumptions: 1) each function is relatively simple, and 2) everyone knows the work that each implies. Both assumptions are false.

The revelation that the assignment has been grossly underestimated may hit home only after you have accepted the role. Then you find yourself looking for shortcuts, especially if you are directing volunteers only on a part-time basis. For example, if you are assigned to manage the program during 20 hours a week ("half-time"), you will soon discover that you cannot do only "half" the tasks of recruitment or "half" the tasks of supervision! If you try to ignore certain aspects of the job, the consequences will haunt you. Quite a dilemma.

Perhaps the most effective way to reconcile the demands of the job with the time available in which to do them is to share the tasks with others. This "team approach" may seem simple and obvious as you read about it, and yet can be quite challenging to actually do. On the following pages you will find concrete suggestions and strategies for ensuring that you do not have to do your job alone. And, yes, the team approach also works if you are a fulltime Director of Volunteer Services trying to handle the demands and expectations of an expanding program.

Regardless of your situation or the strategies you ultimately adopt, your success will be predicated on three important points:

1. You understand the scope of the job.
Chapter 3 provides a detailed list of volunteer management tasks. As you read it, edit it by adding or deleting items to make it relevant to your own situation and the unique aspects of your setting. The goal is to develop a comprehensive definition of what needs to happen in order to effectively mobilize and direct volunteer resources within your organization. Though the length of this list may seem overwhelming at first, facing it as a "known quantity" is immeasurably better than continually being surprised by the number of tasks concealed behind general phrases like "recruit new volunteers."

2. You believe in the value of volunteer involvement.
In addition to specific tasks, there is another major factor in assuring successful volunteer management: attitude. This is a person-to-person job directly influenced by the amount of honest commitment you feel to volunteerism. Such commitment, in turn, may be influenced by how you came to hold the position. Did you actively seek the role? Did you "fall into it" by accident? Were you assigned to it ("anointed")? Those who enter the field of volunteer administration by accident often accept leadership of a volunteer program as a temporary stepping stone to something else, such as a promotion, direct client supervision, etc. The "anointed" often recognize that they may have been designated rather arbitrarily, and see the assignment as auxiliary to (and of lower priority than) their "real" jobs.

Regardless of how you came to be in charge of volunteers, the challenge is to cultivate the attitudes necessary for success:

  • Belief in the value and power of volunteerism.
  • Recognition of people's potential capabilities, rather than their formal credentials.
  • Desire to make the program work to its fullest potential.
  • Openness to tapping a variety of volunteers (different ages, backgrounds, ideas, etc.).
  • Willingness to stand up for the rights of volunteers.
  • Enjoyment of working with volunteers.

3. You are committed to the team approach because it benefits the organization as much as it benefits you.
On the following pages the phrase "management team" will be used repeatedly to refer to the cooperative approach to leading volunteers. You will still be in charge, but with the benefit of shared responsibility as specific tasks are delegated to others. The program will be stronger because it will have gained the input of ideas and perspectives in addition to your own. You and your co-workers will share both problems and successes, resulting in real joint ownership of the results. You will avoid the trap of isolation which often comes when you are the only one who understands the job. And neither you nor the organization will fall prey to the "solo syndrome"-the perception that the success or failure of volunteer involvement rests on only one person's shoulders. Thus, from the double perspective of both time management and program development, recruiting a team to share your leadership role makes a lot of sense.

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