Collaborating with Volunteers to Get More Done

Almost every leader of volunteers I know is overworked, juggling an enormous to-do list without the magical addition of extra hours in a day. So, I often ask audiences: “How many of you have recruited volunteers specifically assigned to help with the tasks of coordinating volunteer engagement?” Typically, only a few hands go up – and of that small group, most delegate administrative things like helping with recordkeeping and scheduling. Consider the irony of being the only person in an organization with unlimited permission to recruit talented people to contribute their skills in so many units and projects, but not getting the help we need in the volunteer services office!

What stops us from collaborating with volunteers ourselves? Lots of things, from feeling that our priority is to help other departments to our own reluctance to give up control over our own work. Diagnose any resistance you may have to the idea of finding skilled volunteers and delegating volunteer management roles to them, and think about what this tells you about why so many paid staff are reluctant to welcome the help you offer to them.

If you are serious about recruiting volunteers to help coordinate volunteers, begin by listing all of your ongoing activities and then answer these questions for each task:

  1. Do I have to be the one to do it? Why? (Approving the final product doesn’t mean doing all the tasks.)
  2. Am I the best person to do it? Is anyone else more qualified?
  3. Do I like doing it? Might someone else be happy to do it?
  4. Would involving other people benefit our volunteer engagement effort?

Once you’ve identified roles that a qualified and interested volunteer might do, here are some ideas for finding the help you need.

Recruit New Volunteers Who Might Love Focusing on Volunteer Management.

Write position descriptions for key roles and determine what qualifications would be great to round out your skills. Then brainstorm where you might find prospective volunteers with those skills and invite them to the opportunity. For example, past presidents of civic groups have relevant experience, as do human resources managers. Graduate students studying nonprofit management might develop an internship with you.

Offer Current Volunteers the Chance to Do More at a Leadership Level.

Even volunteers who love their assignment can get bored – or be interested in more than one thing. It is a powerful form of recognition to show volunteers that you feel they can contribute to strengthening volunteer engagement in your organization. Here are some ideas:

  • Don’t typecast volunteers into their first role.
    • Keep records on each person’s special skills and update what they may have learned since you first interviewed them.
    • Create a “skills bank” so that you can quickly find unusual talents.
  • Create true feedback loops.
    • Always invite opinions and suggestions, and be clear on how to transmit them.
    • When you really want advice, be specific with your question!
    • Report back on what you were told and how you acted on it (it’s OK to decide not to use suggestions as long as people know you considered them).
    • Create an online community for discussion.
    • Respond to reports volunteers submit and you’ll get better reports.
  • Form short-term task forces or focus groups on specific challenges and project planning:
    • Rotate membership.
    • Allow volunteers to choose whether to add such meetings to their regular schedule or whether to take a brief break from their normal responsibilities.
    • Use such groups to generate ideas, identify community resources, and generally expand your own lists.
  • Consider ways to “refresh” an ongoing volunteer assignment:
    • Buddy experienced volunteers with newcomers (with clear expectations as to what that means).
    • Let experienced volunteers train others, either in person or via short videos.
    • Assign “team” or “shift” leaders – not necessarily be managers, but to be your designated representative when you can’t be present.
    • Ask volunteers to represent you in the community at a meeting or online in a discussion group.
    • Ask for small actions to help: distribute recruitment flyers; repost social media messages.
    • Ask volunteers to do research of any kind, especially online.

This Quick Tip comes from Susan J. Ellis, President of Energize, Inc.