Even with one or more full-time staff leading volunteer engagement, it’s at the front line that the majority of volunteers will need support or, at minimum, someone to provide information. The larger your organisation, the more critical it becomes to designate an official liaison from each department, work unit/team, or physical location to be the point person for volunteers assigned there. This liaison performs key coordinating functions:
- Welcoming new volunteers and ensuring they receive whatever orientation, training, workspace, or supplies they need to start being productive
- Maintaining a record of all volunteers currently assigned to the team, their schedules, their supervisors or contacts, and so on
- Ensuring that all communication from the volunteer office is disseminated to paid and volunteer staff in that work area and, conversely, that information is conveyed from the team to the volunteer office
- Working with the volunteer office to identify new/additional volunteer assignments
- Representing the team in planning for organisation-wide volunteer events, such as recognition functions
These people are vital to daily management of volunteer involvement for all parties: the staff of each specific work area, the volunteers assigned there, and the volunteer office trying together to make volunteer management consistent and effective throughout the organisation.
The work of a liaison is not necessarily demanding or continually time consuming. As with so many other recommendations in this book, however, the responsibility must be handled intentionally. So everyone in the team must know who the point person is, and if something related to volunteers arises, the liaison must be able to prioritise dealing with it.
Other Staffing Needs
As mentioned in the rationale for a programme secretary, the volunteer office has some special considerations in terms of coverage. Certainly, every unit of the organisation wants to be accessible to the public and therefore makes provisions for such things as telephone coverage when all staff are away from their desks. But for the volunteer office, this need involves more than just message taking. The hardest step in applying for a volunteer position is making the initial telephone call. Therefore, the attitude and tone of the person answering the phone is critical. If the prospective volunteer hears disinterest or even discourtesy, the whole recruitment effort may be aborted. In fact, the organisation’s representative should be saying things such as, ‘We’re so glad you called, and I know that our director of volunteer involvement will be delighted to call you back.’ This simply is not the way most staff take messages for each other!
As CEO, you can make certain that employees are trained to support the volunteer office in its relations with the public. Reception desk personnel and others with front-line public contact responsibilities should project a friendly and appreciative image to all prospective and active volunteers. In a small office, this requirement extends to all staff who routinely answer phones or greet visitors for one another. (This is a great example of behaviour change that benefits everyone, not just volunteers.)
Unfortunately, we have all grown accustomed to the ubiquitous presence of automated voicemail systems. Many organisations need to evaluate the cost of replacing a live voice on the telephone with a computer. It certainly projects an impersonal image to clients and the community, especially if people are calling when in distress. For prospective volunteers, voicemail may be an unhelpful hurdle to jump in the process of considering whether to give time. At a minimum, test the system to make sure that contact with the volunteer office is a specific option to select and that it is easy to leave a message—not to mention ensuring that a staff member calls back soon!
Similarly, prospective volunteers are increasingly submitting e-mail messages and online applications, which carry the expectation of a prompt reply. It is vital to acknowledge that the electronic application was received, pledge to get in touch again within a certain amount of time, and then do so.
One other staffing point is that the director of volunteer involvement is not a substitute for volunteers. If a scheduled volunteer is absent for whatever reason, it is not appropriate to expect the director of volunteer involvement to go to the team and handle the volunteer’s work for that day. This is, of course, no different from expectations we hold for employee supervisors. If an employee is not present, the work is generally held until the person returns; the supervisor does not step in to do it unless some emergency warrants this. Actually, since volunteers are deployed in the organisation in various work areas, if a task assigned to an absent volunteer is critical, the most appropriate substitute would be a line worker in that team—not the director of volunteer involvement, who is not part of the team.