Volunteer Work Design

All about things that affect the way in which we create roles/assignments for volunteers -- perhaps the most critical aspect of volunteer management.

I Really Want to Know: What’s Going on Out There?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2014
Both Receiving and Giving, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2010
Breaking through the Glass Ceiling for Volunteers, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2013
Changing Work Patterns (Implications for Volunteer Recruitment), Judy Esmond, Count Me In! 501 Ideas on Recruiting Volunteers, Newseason Publications, 2001
The Choice of the Citizen: Pay Taxes, Do Without, or Volunteer, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2011
Clarifying Expectations on Both Sides, Eileen Hammond, 64-66, Directory of Social Change, 2008
Clients Are a Talent Pool, Too, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2016
Common Sense and Volunteer Involvement, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2012
Creating a System to Involve Staff as Volunteers, Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch and Rob Jackson, Chapter 10, pp. 245-46, Directory of Social Change
Creative Volunteer Roles, By Susan J. Ellis, Appeared as an "On Volunteers" column in The NonProfit Times
Days, Hours and Minutes of Service - Enough Is Enough, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2009
Differentiating between Volunteering and Working for Pay, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2010
The Domino Effect of Setting Goals for Volunteer Involvement, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2016
The Drive towards "Highly-skilled" and "Pro Bono" Volunteering, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2009
Employee or Volunteer: What’s the Difference?, Melanie Lockwood Herman, 2014
Encouraging Entrepreneurial Volunteering, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2006
From Organizing Charity to Building Community, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2008
Helper Triage: Volunteer Management in Emergencies, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2007
The Holiday Season: Going Beyond "Feel-Good" Volunteering, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 1997
"I Don't Have Time", Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2006
I'll help with that, but don't ask me to lead it!, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2007
Interns: The "Acceptable" Volunteers?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2004
The Just-a-Volunteer Syndrome, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 1999
Let’s Help People Help Each Other, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2014
Limiting Volunteers through Insurance Requirements, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2010
Micro-volunteering: worth the hype?, Heather Sturgess, nfpSynergy Blog, 2016
Missed Opportunities for Good Help, Susan J. Ellis, Appeared as an "On Volunteers" column in The NonProfit Times
The Missing Link: Where are Volunteers at the National Level?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2002
Mixed Messages to Volunteers Whom We’ve Asked to Be Friendly, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2015
Mixed Messages: What Do We Really Think about Young Volunteers?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2000
Mobile Volunteers -"Tis the Season", Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2005
Museums Seek Greater Control of Docents, Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal, 2015

A wave of retired baby boomers is volunteering as docents at museums—but they sometimes go rogue; ‘Like Mutiny on the Bounty’

The Power of Difference, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2008
Practicing What We Preach: Volunteers Helping Us, Too, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2012
Raising Money through Volunteer Labor, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2003
Reaching Out to International Visitors, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 1998
Replace Current Volunteers or Redirect New Ones?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2015
Replacing Volunteers with Paid Staff, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2008
The Rise of the Knowledge Philanthropist, Colleen Kelly & Lynda Gerty, pp. 28-29, Vantage Point, 2013
The Self-Directed Volunteer, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2010
Sending Volunteer Talent Down the Drain, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2016
Short Attention Spans versus Long-term Causes, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2011
Should We Cap the Number of Hours a Volunteer May Serve Each Week?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2013
Staff Resistance and Highly-Skilled Volunteers, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 1999
Tackling Causes Not Symptoms: New/Old Roles for Volunteers, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2001
Taking the Client's Perspective in Designing Volunteer Roles, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2009
The Treasure Trove of Knowledge Philanthropists, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2013
Universal Standards vs. Your Own Situation, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2003
Unskilled vs. Differently Skilled: Maximize Volunteer Differences, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2000
Virtual Volunteering Revisited, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2014
A Volunteer Needs a Good Reason for Doing the Task, Helen Little, Volunteers: How to Get Them, How to Keep Them, pp 37-38, Panacea Press, 1999
Volunteering and Employability: Cause or Effect?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2013
Volunteering in For-Profit Settings: Exploitation or Value Added?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2000
Volunteering Is Inherently Political, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2012
Volunteers as Beta Testers, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2015
Volunteers as the "Third Branch" of an Organization, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 1997
Volunteers and the Quest for Innovation, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2014
Voluntourism - Pros, Cons, and Possibilities, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2007
When a Volunteer Transforms into an Employee, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2001
When "Just" a Volunteer is Better than a Paid Employee, Jayne Cravens, Energize Hot Topic, 2019
When the Ax Falls: Budget Cutting and Volunteers, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2009
When Volunteers Resist Change, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 2010
WHO IS THE NEW BREED OF VOLUNTEER? A Profile of the 21st Century Volunteer, Jonathan McKee and Thomas McKee, ch. 1, pp.3-24, Group Publishing, Inc., 2012
Why Is It Labor Unions vs. Volunteers?, Susan J. Ellis, Energize Hot Topic, 1997
Harvard School of Public Health-MetLife Foundation Initiative on Retirement and Civic Engagement , 2004, pp. 162
By Youth Service America, showing how to "develop and implement a high-impact, strategic plan of action to engage young people in serving and learning in their communities." , 2013, pp. 74

Created as a "A Guide for South Australian Local Government" by the City of Salisbury in SA, this contains many useful tips for determining potential risks in volunteer work, even if the legal issues discussed will not be the same in all locations. Also suggests ways to create volunteer position descriptions from a health and safety perspective.

, 2014, pp. 60
Hands for Nature Volunteer Management Handbook

Chapter 2: Recruiting Volunteers (includes job design overview) from Evergreen in Canada

Time Banks USA

Founded by Edgar Kahn, describes how to set up service exchanges that give barter "value" to each hour of volunteer work contributed by participants.

Toolkit for Family Readiness Groups

Chapter 2: Volunteer Management - Job Descriptions, from the US National Guard and Reserves

Volunteer Job Descriptions

Focused on officers of all-volunteer groups, from the Risk & Insurance Management Society

Print and e-Books in Our Store

Book cover

Demystifies risk management and sets out in plain language what every volunteer program needs to know about this sometimes scary, always critical subject.

book cover Measuring the Impact of Volunteers

Presents the innovative Volunteer Resources Balanced Scorecard measurement and planning tool for aligning volunteer effort with organizational goals and effectively assessing the impact of that effort. 

15-minute podcast from Vantage Point in Canada about how to get labor unions on board with volunteer involvement, with guest Jill Wurflinger, National Director of Volunteer Engagement at the Canadian Diabetes Association, 

10-Minute Challenge: Pushing the Boundaries of Roles for Volunteers
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

I recently developed a group exercise for a workshop that is also of value as an individual thought-provoker. I call it the "10-Minute Challenge" because it is meant to test your gut reaction to what types of volunteers or donated services you might accommodate - enthusiastically welcome? begrudgingly accept? - within your organization.

For each of the 15 lines below, respond to these two questions:

  • On a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being excitement and 5 being dread, what is my first reaction to the idea of developing a volunteer role for this type of person or this type of service?
  • Off the top of my head, what can I identify as at least one real work assignment with potential for this volunteer/offer?

Ready? You will undoubtedly already have some of the volunteers on this list while others may catch you by surprise. Take 10 minutes to apply the two questions above to the whole list. See you at the end with some closing observations.

  1. Someone available one day a year
  2. A family of three generations wanting to volunteer together
  3. University professors
  4. Someone available only during the night
  5. Service via smart phone
  6. A group of children under the age of 14
  7. Seniors over the age of 85 who are mentally active but physically limited
  8. On-call service
  9. Current clients/patients/consumers who want to get involved while receiving services from your organization
  10. Families and friends of current clients/patients/consumers (particularly if visiting or waiting for their relative/friend)
  11. Entrepreneurial volunteers who want to experiment with new approaches to service
  12. People referred by a therapist
  13. Corporate employees in teams
  14. Off-site work
  15. CEOs of major companies

So, what did you learn? The point is not to rush out and recruit every one of these types of volunteers and, of course, not every organization can meaningfully involve everyone. But are you open to innovating? Pilot testing (no one said you have to take an army of 9-year-olds!)? Did you jump to conclusions as to the limitations of some of the categories rather than their potential to do new and different things? Did you first consider whether your recipients of service might benefit from this type of volunteer, or did you react primarily on the basis of, "wow, this would be hard for me to manage"?

There is no scoring system here nor will I give grades. My goal was to stimulate your thinking and, maybe, to let you self-assess your openness to new sources of willing talent.

Beyond the Norm
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

As a field,
we've become much more savvy in developing meaningful and appealing work for a
wide range of volunteers way past the old model of regularly-scheduled
helper. We've learned to run single days
of service and deal with spontaneous volunteers. We can assign projects to corporate employee
teams, intergenerational families, and those who want to volunteer virtually. Yet
we are still missing some opportunities.

What kind
of volunteer work might you design for the following less traditional prospects
(and this is only a partial list)?

  • Seniors over the age of 90 (the fastest growing
    age category today)
  • Children
    under the age of 14
  • Newly-unemployed
    people wanting a bridge between their old job and finding a new one

  • Voluntourists
    (people spending vacation or conference time in your area - from one day to a
    season - and who want to be of use to the community)
  • Current clients who want to get involved to help
  • The CEOs of the major companies in your area
  • University professors (not just their students!)
  • Blue
    collar tradespeople

I'm not
suggesting that every organization needs the sort of help these people might
offer. But how did you react -- in your
gut -- to each group on this list? If you
can get past some preconceived notions about who is a potential volunteer, you
can vastly expand the pool of community resources available to you.

we simply avoid potential resources because we can't picture how we would work
with them. Maybe that's why so many
senior volunteering programs are focusing on people in their 50s (who don't
identify at all with the concept of "senior") and not on healthy nonagenarians. It's just easier -- and there are fewer
transportation and health concerns. It's
the same with engaging young children in service. Yet both ends of the age spectrum offer
unique perspectives and skill bases.

Sometimes we
can't imagine that a group might even be interested in volunteering with
us. We approach students, but not their
teachers or professors -- and who is more skilled? We recruit secretaries and salespeople, but
not their managers and certainly not their CEOs. And why not?
Do we offer any volunteer work executives
would find appealing? What do we think
that is?

In a
similar vein, it's fascinating how rarely we reach out to labor unions, trade
councils, or blue collar businesses. We
won't think twice about asking a white collar professional to volunteer as a
consultant or donate training services, but do we invite plumbers or roofers to
give their labor (also professionally skilled) pro bono? Why not?

Bet you're
wondering how you'll ever be able to coordinate and support these populations,
who will need extra time and attention.
Don't forget the strategy of recruiting interested volunteers
knowledgeable about each group to run a pilot project with the target
population, or to be team or shift leaders for the group.

If you find
yourself with a very homogenous volunteer corps, it may be because you are
gravitating towards the "usual suspects" in your recruitment. Whether you intended to or not, the volunteer
assignments you offer appeal to a narrow slice of the community. Try
welcoming people who fall outside the norm you've established of age, status,
schedule, and other factors. They may be
delighted at the invitation to get involved and you'll expand the value of the
volunteer effort for your organization.

Flexible Volunteering
Submitted by Janica Fisher, Humanity in Practice , Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Our company, Humanity In Practice, has designed a volunteer program for children under 12.  HIPkids, http://www.behip.ca/, is a unique way for school children, Guide/Scout groups and families to make a difference from anywhere.  This program runs ten months a year and comes to the volunteer in the form of a fun project that they can do in their own time which helps the agency!  We promote these projects on a colored poster given to each coordinator so they can choose which projects they wish to do.  For example, an agency we just supported has an annual fundraising gala that requires a lot of time and effort from the staff.  One of the tasks the staff needs to do is to create table centerpieces each year to reflect the theme.  This year, HIPkids made the table centerpieces which will be proudly sitting at the tables and throughout the gala.  The children made a difference by helping the agency with a time consuming task so that the staff could focus on other things!

Our program is popular because it is simple and flexible—and, since starting this 4 years ago, we have had youth and senior groups ask us to become HIPkids! The agencies enjoy this program too as it costs nothing to participate and there are no risk management issues, recruiting, training or supervision involved!

Grab Bag of Tasks
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

If you're like me, whenever a volunteer comes up to you and says, "I have some extra time today (or this week), so what else could I do?" - every idea for what needs to be done suddenly drops out of your head! It's frustrating because we all want to direct volunteer time and skills towards work that's truly meaningful.

Here's an idea. Train yourself (and others) to write down work assignments as you think of them at any time. These can be the sublime to the mundane, from developing a five-year plan to cleaning out the supply closet. Not "busy work," but things that genuinely would be of use but aren't at the top of anyone's current to-do list. In between the plan and the closet might be things like:

  • Check that reading materials in the client waiting room are current, in good shape, and offer variety.
  • Take important instruction sheets and photocopy them at 125% so that the enlarged type can be read more easily by someone who is vision impaired.
  • Find a great children's story about volunteering that could be read on a visit to a school.
  • Go through the photographs of the last event and pick the best three to post online.
  • Handwrite thank-you notes to the officers of the community groups that helped with a special event.
  • Talk to a new volunteer about how her or his first month is going.
  • Interview a unit supervisor about what else the right volunteers might do in that work area.

You might also break down a big project into small bites. For example, if you're coming up to a big celebration and are creating centerpieces, figure out how long it might take to sit down and do one decoration only - or if people can come and go from the work area, as time and interest allows.

Put each idea on a separate slip of paper and number it. Then jot down some quick instructions (or which staff member to see to do this piece of work) and file the papers by number, matching the slips.

Separate the slips into tasks that can be completed in 1 hour, 3 hours, and a day or more. Then put them into three bowls or boxes, with the timeframe marked on the outside.

The next time someone offers to do something extra, let them pick a slip at random. If they don't like it, they can pick again, but at least you'll know that everything in the bowls is a real task. Sure some of the things will be clerical or physical, but when volunteers offer you an extra hour or two, they want to do something useful and will understand if it is a smaller or less sophisticated task than their usual assignment.

Note that the grab bag tasks could also be used if someone brings along a friend or teenaged child for the day. It's also a way to respond to a staff member with a special request that you can't fill immediately. Tell the person it will become a grab-bagger item (and maybe you'll put it on yellow paper so it can jump out visually!).

You can even keep an electronic list of short activities that can be done virtually or off-site and do something similar by e-mail, if you have volunteers who work remotely.

Understanding Why Volunteers Want Short-term Projects
From Susan J. Ellis, President, Energize, Inc.

If you wonder why it is so universal for new volunteers to want short-term assignments, you shouldn't be puzzled. After all, we live in a world that has expects everything to be quick, if not instant. Consider:

  • How we take the speed of global communications for granted. E-mail zips around the globe, but we also want instant messaging, smart phone texting, and who knows what's next?
  • Television shows begin and resolve a dramatic incident in one hour.
  • We have disposable everything - "planned obsolescence."
  • Very few people earn gold watches after 25 years on a job (assuming the job even stays around for 25 years) - and divorce has meant far fewer silver and gold wedding anniversaries!

So it's not surprising that people also want their volunteering to be fast. In addition, there are overwhelming demands on everyone's time. Here are some reasons so many of us feel time-deprived:

  • We are never out of reach due to computers and smart phones - family, friends and employers expect unending accessibility.
  • When we do have free time, we often spend hours online socializing, shopping, whatever.
  • The financial crisis is forcing many into extra jobs and delayed retirement.
  • Divorce creates two households and double the chores, as well as scheduled parenting (and guilt over not enough time with the kids).
  • Many are also caring for aging parents.

Now, along with expectations of speed and stress from a sense of too little time, add the traditional image of volunteering that many in the public hold. They believe that volunteering means:

  • A steady commitment of time on a set schedule - endlessly
  • Filling an unpaid job slot with defined activities
  • Wasted hours in meetings
  • A bottomless pit in which a little bit of service leads to additional requests for even more time

So...it turns out to be reasonable that volunteering must fit into the demands of people's lives. The good news is that most are well aware of the need for everyone to pitch in and help with important causes. They actually want to serve, but don't think they can. It's up to us to show how volunteering can not only fit into a busy schedule but be fun and useful, too. Position volunteering as skill and career development, or as a way to meet new friends (and even, potentially, lovers), or as whatever people don't think they have time to do. Help people to multi-task, such as doing volunteer work with their kids. Find ways for people to contribute their skills online or on their own schedule. Create short-term projects with a clear beginning and end. The good news is that all of these efforts get important work done and also foster evolving loyalty as satisfied people return willingly for new volunteer projects.