A consistent (and persistent) theme for me since I began writing and giving presentations in the 1970s to today is the importance of recording and reporting significant information about volunteer service. Even though the first edition of our book Proof Positive detailed keeping records on volunteers using paper and pens (quaint notion, right?), the essence of our advice has been remarkably easy to keep current even if computers and online access to data have radically changed how we maintain those records. But for all the technical progress and available software, the sad fact is that most organizations are woefully under-informed about their volunteers and what they do.
What we do not measure, we do not value.
What we cannot describe, we do not understand.
What we never question or discuss becomes invisible.
These are strong statements but I believe they summarize all too well the way that volunteers are ignored by organizational leaders with the assistance of leaders of volunteer resources who only provide minimal information about volunteer engagement.
In the U.S., July 4th is Independence Day. It celebrates the end of a struggle for recognition and the start of a new way of looking at ourselves, topped off with wow-inspiring pyrotechnics. So this July Hot Topic is about creating fireworks through great reports about volunteers that capture delighted attention.
- Don’t Wait to Be Asked
Just because no one has requested information does not mean there’s no responsibility to report it. The leader of volunteers is the only person who sees the full picture and has the facts about volunteers. Paid staff only know a little about the volunteers with whom they come in contact; volunteers only know what they see when they do their work (which really leaves those who work in the field or online out of the loop); and administrators may only chance upon volunteers in the hallway or once a year at a recognition event.
If you are not already providing monthly or quarterly reports, start now. If you have been asked to report only limited information (e.g., head count, hours served) keep giving that data but add more important stuff that will make your report POP.
- Illuminate the Situation
Statistics need interpretation and that requires context, especially if the busy person reading your report is not fully aware of what volunteers are doing and really only wants to see quick facts. Avoid grand totals because they obscure what’s important. OK. So you currently have 326 volunteers. What does that mean?
- Are they the same 326 that you reported a year ago? Assuming some turnover…
- Did the best volunteers stay or go? For good reasons or bad?
- Did you bring in new volunteers who strengthened the talent pool?
- Are you still in contact with those who left so that they can continue to be your friends out in the community?
- Are the 326 volunteers interchangeable parts? Assuming not…
- How many different roles or assignments do they fill?
- How many and which departments, units or projects are they working with?
- What departments, units or projects do not have volunteers working with them (and why)?
- Who are these people?
- What diversity do they bring to the organization (age, gender, race, ethnicity, etc.)?
- What professions, occupations, or special training do they bring?
- From how many different parts of the community you serve?
- How many different languages do they speak?
There are many more questions one could ask. I’m not suggesting that you give all this detail all the time, but try to provide meaning along with data. You could even set up your report so that each month the statistics page includes a highlighted box headed “Understand the Facts” or “Insight of the Month” in which you offer one or two extra pieces of information. Guess what will catch the reader’s eye first?
- Surprise and Wow People
Volunteers are not just unpaid staff. In fact, we minimize their contributions when we only report their work in assisting with what employees do. The beauty of volunteer involvement is that they are free to go beyond the ordinary and also to focus attention on little, but important things. So shine a light on the extra benefits of volunteer services:
- What was done by volunteers outside of business-as-usual activities? Did they decorate the reception area for Halloween? Give the visiting graduate students from Kenya a tour of the facility? Make sure every client who passed the GED exam received a personal congratulations note?
- How many volunteers gave money to the organization in addition to their time? What about donating goods or going out into the community to get things donated?
- What are ways that volunteer engagement has provided or generated positive publicity, effective public education, or expanded community outreach for your organization?
- How many volunteers are personally affected by your mission? Were they or someone close to them ever a client benefitting from your services? Still?
- Were volunteers able to respond to a need beyond what a paid staff member could do? Talk to a client in a different language? Accompany and support a client through a stressful situation?
It’s also fair to report on the work of the volunteer office itself – and the ways in which it contributes to volunteer success. For example:
- The number of interviews of prospective volunteers (which should be higher than the number who actually come on board, because you do screening)
- Community relations activities – from recruitment outreach to attending neighborhood meetings – conducted by your office
- The number and type of special requests handled by volunteers
- Ways you consult with and even train paid staff to partner more successfully with volunteers
The fact that you screen adequately, represent the organization to the public, and assist many levels of staff, adds to the proof that volunteer services is an asset worth supporting.
- Spark New Ideas
Reports are not just end-of-term report cards; they are documents to assess performance and then enable planning for what comes next. So use the facts to open new conversations.
- Look at how new volunteers first make contact: through online volunteer opportunity sites? Corporate volunteer programs? Schools? Civic groups? What types of community partnerships have been formed (such as liaison with a nearby church youth group or the local bank branch)? Does this open any doors to other types of collaboration opportunities?
- Has anything occurred that reflects a new trend or issue being seen in the volunteer world beyond your organization? What might this mean and how can you capitalize on it?
- Refer to strategic plans being made for the organization, whether new service proposals or increased funding in some areas and suggest ways volunteers might be integrated into the work plan as early as possible.
Openly admit problems (which itself will surprise people) you are facing in building the volunteer corps or in supporting them throughout the organization. Explain what the problems are and outline your proposed plan of attack to solve them. What help or resources do you need?
Finally, don’t just report “up.” Fireworks are a community event and lots of stakeholders can help to celebrate volunteers and offer even more new ideas. So share all reports with:
- The volunteers themselves (After all, it’s their report!)
- All department heads – those who already have volunteers working in their programs and those who do not
- Partnering community organizations that provide volunteers
- Funding sources whose money supports volunteers
Information is power – if used well. Reports can accomplish a lot if you are willing to cause a little noise and look up!
How have you used reports to educate others and gain more support for volunteers?