The Secret Sauce for Volunteer Management

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As a non-profit professional, volunteer management is an integral part of my work — and by corollary, doing volunteer management well is a key ingredient for any success I may ever hope to achieve.

As the part-time youth minister for a neighborhood church on the north side of Chicago, I have a team of nearly a dozen volunteers who help me lead programs, drive the group around to events, and spend time getting to know individual kids so that the kids know they loved and cared for.

As the part-time communications assistant for a network of young adults organizing for climate change action, I consider every activist who signs our “Call to Action” or dons our signature orange t-shirt at a rally as a volunteer. Furthermore, those who contribute content for our website or cover social media on my days off are also active volunteers, even if my only interaction with them is through e-mail.

Since both jobs are simply part-time, I often find myself being “two places at once” by having volunteers do what I physically can’t. Yet, even if either job was full-time, there would still be limits to what I could accomplish on my own, and so in theory effective volunteer management remains critical to unlocking the potential embedded in my organization’s mission/vision and resources.

Although I am far from being a veteran of volunteer management, I would easily rank volunteer management as one of the top skills I have developed and honed while out on the work force. (Apparently, even my colleagues think so — according to LinkedIn, I have received more endorsements for the skill of “volunteer management” than I have for my day jobs of “youth ministry” and “communications” combined).

It was only recently that I took a step back to reflect on my volunteer management style. My education was not in nonprofit management, so instead of following a prescribed set of best practices I have had to rely on my intuition (accompanied by a good dose of trial and error!). The result has been a personal volunteer management style that is simultaneously distinctive yet effective.

So what is my—if I may be so bold as to call it such—“secret sauce” to volunteer management?

Understand the difference between a “volunteer” and a “supporter”

Believe it or not, the “secret sauce” is just semantics. The terms “volunteer” and “supporter” are often used interchangeably, but there is value in learning to distinguish between the two, how they relate to you and your mission/vision.

A supporter is someone who believes in you and your mission/vision and is willing to resource you in order to carry out your mission/vision.

A volunteer is someone who believes in your mission/vision, but needs to be resourced by you in order to carry out that mission/vision.

Supporters will experience your mission/vision in the abstract — they might want give money in response to your annual report, for example. Volunteers will engage with your mission/vision in a “hands-on” way—they want to be in the trenches, at the intersection of noble ideals and nitty-gritty reality.

Some (partially idealized) examples from youth ministry:

Juan is one of my supporters. He has a van that he lets me borrow to transport youth for our off-site excursions. He knows I do not have a car of my own and he often offers me rides so I do not have to trek my way home in inclement weather. Often, when he is driving me home, Juan reminds me that he is praying for me and the work that I do.

Caitlin is one of my volunteers. She is a freshman at the nearby university, majoring in education. She is a leader for our middle school students during our weekly Youth Group night. Like me, she wants the best for the youth of the church and the surrounding neighborhood. She has offered to take students out to Starbucks to get to know them better. Caitlin has once revealed to me that she prays for the students on a regular basis.

See the difference?

Proximity to Mission and Values 2

An obligatory heads-up: you may encounter some people who might straddle both categories. Lars, for example, not only helps lead the weekly Youth Group (categorizing him as a volunteer), but is a financial contributor as well (categorizing him as a supporter). For me, the important thing is not to make Lars conform to predefined boxes of either “volunteer” or “supporter”, but to understand the multiple roles Lars fulfills for my organization.

Applying the Secret Sauce

Consider the secret sauce as a sort of marinade. You have to soak your organization in it before you get cooking. To do so, here are three questions, each to be asked at an almost mantra-like pace as you engage with your volunteers through the seasons.

Question #1 — Is this person a volunteer or a supporter?

For everyone who offers to help, it is up to you to discern whether they are a volunteer or a supporter (or both). Yes, it may take some intentional effort to learn where a person’s true passions and commitments lie — but learning this piece of knowledge upfront will save you from quite the headache down the road.

Because the main difference between a volunteer vs. a supporter is a matter of needing to be resourced vs. being able to resource, it is easy to stereotype volunteers as those who are not financially well off (e.g. students, unemployed) while supporters are those who have some extra money to give. Be careful about making this assumption! Some volunteers are looking to do something meaningful to complement their well-paid but not-so-fulfilling job, while some supporters might be providing forms of informal support that come without a clear price tag (e.g. a home-cooked meal, a consulting conversation, handiwork around the office, a shoulder to lean on).

Scaling up for larger operations, if you have someone in your organization who can help you manage supporters — for example, this might be a director of development or a board member — delegate. (If you are both the volunteer manager and the supporter manager, I’d be curious to hear how you ever get anything else done.)

Question #2 — Is this volunteer being resourced?

I can’t stress this enough: a volunteer needs to be resourced by you.

Too often, we chalk up volunteers as simply a resource for us to use and hopefully not exhaust. “Free labor” — an economic miracle if there ever was one.

Remember, what motivates a volunteer is your organization’s mission/vision. At the end of the day, your organization’s mission/vision is just words on paper, something that can be copied and pasted freely. What keeps a volunteer from going “lone wolf” — and instead, joining forces with you — is acknowledging that you have accumulated the assets, relationships & opportunities needed to make the mission/vision a reality.

Don’t ask this question in the abstract, but drill down to the practical, tangible versions of this question.

Some example questions I try and ask myself in youth ministry:

  • Is this volunteer being properly introduced to kids and co-leaders? Does this volunteer know what to do in case of an emergency?
  • Does this volunteer feel empowered when I am there?
  • Does this volunteer feel empowered when I am *not* there?
  • Is my volunteer team a true community, or just a bunch of names on a roster?
  • Are there any conferences or workshops that might be beneficial for the volunteer team?

More example questions, this time from climate activism:

  • Does this volunteer appreciate the difference between individual and collective action?
  • Do our national campaigns make sense — regarding both 1) how to participate, and 2) what goals may be achieved?
  • Is this volunteer connecting with other activists and organizers, so that they can take local action independent of our own organization?
  • Does the volunteer know how to message climate change appropriately, in a manner that is not too pessimistic nor partisan?

Question #3 — Is this volunteer free to go?

If what keeps your organization humming is an army of unpaid labor, you cannot get upset when a volunteer decides one day to just move on or go on hiatus.

One of the hardest parts about letting a volunteer go from your team is knowing that it falls on you to replace them. Volunteer recruitment could be a whole blog post by itself, but these basic guidelines should suffice: 1) maintain an attractive mission/vision and be able to communicate it effectively; 2) maintain active volunteer recruitment channels; 3) maintain a roster of “substitute” volunteers, perhaps including some of your supporters, who you can readily call on for one-time commitments during a time of transition.

If you have a volunteer who is otherwise unemployed or underemployed, be a partner in their job search when possible. Help them network, add them on LinkedIn, forward them job postings worth investigating. Yes, this might mean their tenure as a volunteer gets cut short, but you’ll have a better sense of timing of when the volunteer’s gig will be up. Further benefits include 1) you potentially get to place an ally at a partner organization, or 2) the outgoing volunteer might reciprocate the favor and help you recruit a replacement.

Granted, in youth ministry, I need some sort of consistency so that the kids don’t feel abandoned. I usually ask volunteers to make commitments only as long as until either winter or summer break, at the end of which they are free either to renew their commitment or simply be done. This gives me some stability in maintaining an active volunteer team, but also gives the volunteer a sense of accomplishment when their time is finally up (as opposed to the endless marathon of an indefinite commitment, where the only way out is to quit).

When the time finally does come for your volunteer to go: celebrate. If you are a healthy organization with a compelling mission/vision, what will take your volunteer out of the picture is likely a task better suited to their skills and ambitions, an opportunity to do something better for the world.

Which, if you ask me, sounds a lot like good news for the world. As a non-profit professional, isn’t that what your whole job is about anyways?

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The Secret Sauce for Volunteer Management

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