Give Volunteers a Voice

By Susan J. Ellis

Despite the common wisdom that volunteers are "community representatives" to and from the organization, how often does your organization tap them for insight about the community? In truth, many agencies want help, but not input--and useful feedback from volunteers rarely occurs spontaneously.

Volunteers bring a different perspective to an agency than do employees or clients. This point of view may result from being less vested in the professional process, or from being younger or older, or from simply having the distance that a part-time schedule allows. Is there a conscious way to let the volunteer perspective be heard?

Here are a few simple strategies for getting useful feedback from volunteers:

  • Ask them. Informally and formally, be sure to elicit the opinions of volunteers. Their point of view can be valuable on any subject from the proposed new logo design to what clients think about a particular service offered (remember that volunteers often are in a great position to hear what clients are saying).
  • Schedule time as often as monthly for administrators to meet representative volunteers individually and in small groups as a "think tank." This doubles as meaningful volunteer recognition while demonstrating to executives the value of community participation.
  • Make sure that any agency program evaluation includes the surveying of volunteers as well as employees and clients.
  • During orientation, be sure to explain to volunteers how and when to express opinions, both critical and complimentary. Do you know what the best method is? How might staff react to unexpected "input"? Maybe this needs to be discussed and strategized, and employees trained in how to make use of the volunteer perspective.
  • Convene all volunteers carrying the same assignment at least annually with the employees of that unit so that volunteers can share their thoughts on what is going well, what needs improvement, and what might be planned for the future.
  • Be sure that volunteers are tapped to serve on agency planning committees.
  • Suggest to the communications/public relations staff that the volunteer perspective be reflected in publications such as newsletters. This might be done by guest columns written by volunteers or by periodic interviews. Certainly any article featuring a special program ought to include quotes from volunteers involved.
  • Use the volunteer recognition event as a time to encourage assessment by volunteers as well as thanks to them. This is usually an event which board members and top administrators attend, so you have an important captive audience listening to what volunteers have to say!

How to Make the Most of Volunteer Input
Not all volunteer ideas will be creative or even realistic (guess what--the same is true of employee opinions!). But they may carry a kernel of insight, especially if the volunteers are more similar to the population served than the staff are.

You may find that some volunteers do their assignments routinely, without much thought, or focused only on their particular unit. Or their assignment may be done off-site so they have few opportunities to connect with what is being done by the rest of the organization. So be prepared to train people in giving input. For example, don't ask vague, general questions like: "What do you think of X?" Instead, guide the discussion with questions like: "Can you identify two positive and two negative aspects to this program?" or "Given your knowledge of this neighborhood, how might you expect local residents to react?"

In order for volunteers to be of greatest help, they need accurate information on which to base their opinions. On a regular basis, keep volunteers informed about new services, changes in personnel, issues impacting your agency. Consider whether periodic meetings to inform volunteers about plans for the future might not yield positive results. Add volunteers to your newsletter mailing list or to in-house memo distribution.

Volunteers are too often the invisible constituents of the organization--affected by decisions reached but not consulted. Establishing channels for input is especially important at times of change or transition, when volunteers may feel affected by what is happening, but "out of the loop." Mergers, change in executive directors, or new major projects may all be opportunities for feedback sessions.

Ideally, your organization will welcome your initiative in setting up a feedback loop. But if you encounter resistance (which may seem as innocuous as someone saying they don't have time for regular meetings with volunteers), be prepared to take action on your own. As leader of the volunteer effort, you can implement many of the ideas above directly. Then record the opinions, observations, and suggestions made by volunteers into summary reports. Circulate the reports to key decision makers and ask for some written follow up response that can be circulated to volunteers.

Now for Your Responses
Let me practice what I preach! Instead of asking: "So what do you think?" (but I truly do want to know!), here are some specific questions:

  • How do you create a forum for volunteer input?
  • Can you describe a situation in which a volunteer's idea or comment led to important agency change?
  • If you initially encountered resistance from administrators to meeting with volunteers once in a while, how did you overcome it?

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Comments from Readers

Submitted on
Missy Miller, Manager of Volunteer & Media Resources, Seton Center, Inc., Emmitsburg MD, USA

I work for a religious non-profit, social service organization. We struggle over including clients as volunteers (due to confidentiality & "ownership" concerns). We do not currently have a policy concerning a "probationary" period for volunteers - a time for the volunteer and the organization to be sure we're a good fit for each other.

Anyone willing to share evaluation forms, ideas, thoughts, I'd happily welcome your input! Thank you!