I frequently get asked "how often" to evaluate "the volunteer program." This is the wrong question, as it is not possible review and assess an entire operation all at once. Break your evaluation goals into several components:
1. Project evaluation: This is assessment of each different activity done by volunteers. When something new is launched, it clearly needs close monitoring through its first year -- benchmark evaluation, if you will. At roughly the first year anniversary, do a more thorough evaluation for the purpose of making sure the project is working; see what needs fine tuning, etc. Then, the second year, reassess anything you revised after year one. After that, evaluation can be less formal for a while.
2. Assessment of effectiveness: It's vital to continuously monitor outcomes and impacts of volunteer efforts, especially so as not to waste volunteer time. It is always of importance to know: Are we meeting real needs? In the most beneficial and appropriate ways? Do our methods work? Do clients want us to do this...or something else?
3. Volunteer management practices: This is assessment of the infrastructure of how well the volunteer involvement strategy is being implemented. It includes considering such questions as: Are we satisfied with the results of our recruitment outreach? How could we be more effective in finding the kinds of volunteers we want and need? How are relations between paid and volunteer staff? How do volunteers assess the orientation and training they receive from us? What is the level of volunteer satisfaction? How can we get better? What do we do right so we can do more of it? A thorough evaluation of this type can be done through something like my Volunteer Management Audit tool every few years or so. But it is probably smart to do focused assessments perhaps twice a year. For example, in February ask questions specifically about orientation and training; in August, do the same thing for recruitment; and so on every six months or so.
Important Note: The biggest mistake you can make when evaluating anything is not knowing what you wanted in the first place. It is impossible to assess anything unless someone has articulated goals and objectives BEFORE the period started! First you have to know what you set out to do. Then you have to design and gather the right data to demonstrate accomplishment in those areas. And only then, after some time has passed, can you ask: Did we do this? Did we do this well?
4. Individual volunteer performance assessment: While this is part of good volunteer training, supervision, and recognition, it is also closely connected to program evaluation because one way to meet program goals is to have the best performing volunteers. As I just noted above about goals and objectives, you can't assess a volunteer unless he or she agreed in advance to a written position description. This forms the basis of the question: How did things go in the past X months?
Employees hate annual performance reviews that feel like student report cards. Make that double for volunteers. So, some tips are:
- Consistently assess everyone -- don't single out problem volunteers. Make it a matter-of-fact annual discussion.
- Call it an "Action Plan" and look forward, not backward. Come with ideas for how the volunteer might advance (if they want to) or select other assignment options.
- Make it a two-way opportunity for feedback. What does the volunteer think might be improved in the agency? How would they like to be trained or supervised?
- Talk about volunteer commitments to assignments in terms of no more than one year at a time: "So, let's agree you'll do this work for the next 12 months and then we'll see how things are going." This allows you to praise/recognize great work and allows the volunteer to re-commit to another year, or it allows either of you to say "perhaps it's time to try something else." No one should feel they "own" an assignment in perpetuity. Rotation is healthy for everyone and keeps volunteers fresh.
If you are not going to use what you learn from any evaluation effort, don't bother doing one. I mean it. It isn't an ending, but a beginning of the next round of service provision. So it has to be a learning experience and a way to guide next steps.
Also, don't look only for problem areas. We can learn as much from our successes as from our failures, especially if intended to replicate what works or do more of it. Also, if we identify good things, too, we won't scare people away from our evaluation process the next time around out of fear of uncovering failure. And of course, learning what's going well makes for great new things to say at the next volunteer recognition event.