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.

Both Receiving and Giving, Susan J. Ellis
Changing Work Patterns (Implications for Volunteer Recruitment), Judy Esmond, Count Me In! 501 Ideas on Recruiting Volunteers, Newseason Publications
Clarifying Expectations on Both Sides, Eileen Hammond, 64-66, Directory of Social Change
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
"I Don't Have Time", Susan J. Ellis
Missed Opportunities for Good Help, Susan J. Ellis, Appeared as an "On Volunteers" column in The NonProfit Times
The Power of Difference, Susan J. Ellis
The Rise of the Knowledge Philanthropist, Colleen Kelly & Lynda Gerty, pp. 28-29, Vantage Point
The Self-Directed Volunteer, Susan J. Ellis
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
Volunteers as Beta Testers, Susan J. Ellis
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.
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
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

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. 

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 others
  • 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.

Sometimes 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.