Copyright 2011 TIGERS Success Series

By Dianne Crampton

Recently, I received a request from a business owner to discuss volunteer program design because of a conflict problem he is facing as a community volunteer.  I am sharing my thoughts in the TIGERS-Den for two reasons.  The first is that these ideas apply to business.  The second is that many of our TIGERS-Den readers are senior leaders who either volunteer themselves or ask managers to volunteer to advance their team skills.

As a vice-chair of a nonprofit Board, this business owner will be Board Chair next year of a nonprofit that recently experienced high staff turnover.  In addition, the nonprofit’s pool of volunteers has dwindled because of conflict with a staff member who is no longer there.

The concern addresses volunteer retention, which is not unlike employee retention with an obvious twist.

Employees receive pay conditioned upon the work they do and volunteers do not.  What connects volunteer is a desire to serve, to contribute and to know their efforts make a difference.  Another characteristic is that social interaction is part of the fun and spark of volunteering, and volunteers tend to place a high value on working with others.  To be effective, these motivations need to be an outcome of the design.

So, here are three tips for designing and managing an effective volunteer program based on team culture principles.

1. A viable program must institute a framework to facilitate volunteer guidance.

A successful volunteer program needs to do more than address management style and culture.  To channel volunteer talents and energies productively, leaders need to define the behaviors and roles expected from non-paid staff so that a volunteer’s time and interests are respected.  This includes the following activities:

  • Establishing the rationale for volunteer involvement and answering the question, “for what reason are volunteers needed?”While volunteer labor may be “free”, a volunteer program requires expenditures for orientation, training, recognition, reimbursement, and team building. By knowing why volunteers are needed, strategies can be put into place to recruit volunteer skills and to develop and recognize volunteers.
  • Involving paid staff and key volunteers in volunteer program designStaff and volunteer involvement not only help in crafting policy but it also serves to build ownership and commitment for program acceptance. This is because it is important to staff and volunteers to understand how their activities fit into planning and how those activities ultimately contribute to program success.
  • Preparing job descriptions for volunteer positionsSuccessful volunteer programs are built upon clear and meaningful volunteer job descriptions so that the volunteer coordinator knows how much time is required to perform the work, to assess if training is necessary and to determine whether the skills needed match a volunteer’s experience and interest.
  • Meeting the needs of volunteersPeople volunteer for a variety of reasons.  One reason is that the service matches a volunteer’s values. Another is that service helps the volunteer achieve career, social or self esteem needs. Frequently it satisfies the desire to “do something useful to help others.”  When the needs and values of volunteers align with a volunteer position, the nonprofit can expect a lower turnover.

2. A viable program must provide feedback and volunteer coaching.

A powerful motivation for volunteering is to achieve worthwhile and visible results.  Coaching can serve this purpose because helpful guidance is actually a form of compliment.  The sincere and timely feedback indicates that the volunteer effort is important.

3. A viable program is measurable.

Staff should be able to determine whether the procedures to meet essential program functions are in place so they know if they are operating effectively. Evaluating volunteer satisfaction is important to this so that short comings can be corrected. Any time programs experience problems with high volunteer turnover, flaws in program design must be addressed.

These functions are not different for team cultures that offer employee training, development and coaching.  The key lies in creating a system that inspires people and instills a sense of esteem and belonging.