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Who Supervises?

By James C. Fisher and Kathleen M. Cole
From Leadership and Management of Volunteer Programs, Jossey-Bass, 1993, pp.120-121

Volunteers evolve in their respective roles through their interactions with each other and, more significantly, through their interactions with their supervisor. In a study of volunteer satisfaction, Gidron (1983) found that adequate supervision and assistance from supervisory staff were important determinants of individuals' satisfaction with their volunteer experience. Other research on volunteers' attitudes toward supervisors (Colomy, Chen, and Andrews, 1987) indicates that the competence of the immediate supervisor and the guidance and support provided by the supervisor ranked fourth and fifth out of twenty factors important to volunteers' effectiveness.

Because the quality of the relationship between volunteer and supervisor is so critical, the question of who supervises is vitally important to the success of the volunteer program. Equally essential is the allocation of adequate resources for the supervision of volunteer efforts: supervisory costs are likely to be the highest of all those associated with the management of the volunteer program.

In most centralized programs, where the main functions of the organization are performed by volunteers, the volunteer administrator serves as the supervisor of all volunteer staff. However, it should be noted that the time-consuming nature of this responsibility may prevent further development of the volunteer program as a whole. In decentralized organizations, where volunteers are placed in various ongoing units, the volunteer administrator shares supervisory responsibility with other paid staff or it completely.

After placement, the classroom teacher, ward supervisor, program manager, or curator provides direct supervision of the volunteer on a day-to-day basis.

The following case illustrates how the supervisory needs of volunteers in a decentralized program were met:

In a probation program designed to prevent recidivism, volunteers requested clinical supervision. Although their training had prepared them to work with probationers and their families, they recognized that the complex needs of the families required advanced training. Although the program's budget did not include funds for a highly skilled clinical consultant, the volunteer administrator was able to recruit a retired social worker with experience in the area of probations. He provided clinical supervision and support to the volunteers, while the volunteer administrator continued to function as the program manager by recruiting volunteers, arranging for monthly meetings, and supervising volunteers in the nonclinical facets of the program.

In some organizations, volunteers provide supervision for other volunteers through the use of a career ladder that advances volunteers to supervisory positions. According to Ellis (1991), "Volunteers make excellent mid-level supervisors of other volunteers. Using them encourages a team approach..." In addition to minimizing the time and expense of involving paid staff in the supervision of volunteers, use of this option is a way to promote and recognize experienced volunteers. The volunteer administrator or other paid staff member provides the training, advice, and ongoing support needed by these unpaid supervisors of volunteers.

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