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podcast: managing volunteers in small organizations with Camara Chambers

Volunteers! We can't live (or operate) without them.

Volunteers have a huge influence on our sector, with over two BILLION hours contributed in Canada in 2017. For small organizations in particular, volunteers are mission critical.

But that doesn't mean managing volunteers is easy. In fact, chances are you've experienced how hard it can be to manage them effectively.

In our conversation with Camara Chambers, ED of Volunteer Toronto, we cover how to think about your volunteer program, how to onboard your volunteers, and then how to manage and maintain them so that you are really leveraging their goodwill and supporting your organization.

where can you use volunteers?

In order to optimize your use of volunteers, Camara recommends doing a mini audit of the opportunities where your organization can benefit from volunteer support. It's pretty common to have volunteers support outreach, program delivery, admin, fundraising and more! But there's nothing worse than having a willing volunteer and no work for them or trying to scramble to "make work" for volunteers.

Revisit your volunteer opportunities every year or so to make sure your volunteer program is optimized for your organization's needs. Don't just think about what "needs" to get done - also think about what skills are required (or need to be developed) to do the work. You want to make sure your volunteers' abilities match the work they will be doing.

And please, don't make work that doesn't benefit the organization. We see a lot of organizations try to bend over backward to accommodate someone who wants to do something that isn't helpful. You have enough on your plates - we're giving you permission to say "no" from time to time! If you can't benefit from a specific volunteer, maybe recommend another organization that is better aligned.

what do your volunteers want?

Volunteers have various motivations and the only way to discover what they are - is to ask! The best way to keep your volunteers happy is to make sure they are getting value from their time with you. Right at the beginning, ask them what they want and check in with them throughout their time volunteering with you. Camara recommends being upfront - a simple "what would you like to gain from this experience" goes a long way. This question also helps make sure there is good alignment right from the start.

Of course, there's a fundamental tension between trying to meet volunteer needs vs. the organization's needs. As with almost all things "small nonprofit" - start where you are! Don't worry about all the "what ifs" and focus on the opportunities that are most urgent and immediate and build from there.

on-boarding for success

A big factor to successful volunteer management is making sure they are on-boarded well. A combination of in-person and online training can go a long way in equipping your volunteers to be successful. They need to know about your organization, but also about their specific role. Think about some basic, general training, that you can provide more efficiently through video and then focus on the in-person and "on-the-job" training that is more customized for the role. Remember to provide more support in the early days as training is not just one session, but a process as people get more comfortable with their roles. A great opportunity is to leverage your existing volunteers in a position to train new ones.

the volunteer from "hell"

We've all had them. The volunteer that doesn't follow instructions or deals with situations inappropriately. Camara recommends both leaning on strong volunteer policies and trying to manage that person appropriately.

Your policies allow you to set expectations, identify what volunteers should know, what their rights and responsibilities are, and what happens when things aren't working as planned. You should outline how volunteers quit, if that's what they decide, and how they will be dismissed, if necessary.

retention and recognition

You should be checking in on your volunteers on a regular basis - formally or informally. Make sure your volunteers feel the impact of their work - that is, after-all, why they are there in the first place! Help your volunteers know that their work is contributing to the organization's mission and impact in the community.

Volunteer appreciation is also critical to volunteer satisfaction. Don't just wait for Volunteer Week, make sure you give positive feedback and let volunteers know you recognize and appreciate their contributions to the organization. Even just stopping in to visit them on a shift to say "thanks" can go a long way! Volunteer Week is a great way to reinforce the thanks, but ongoing acknowledgment from staff and senior managers really does help volunteer satisfaction.

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Resources from this Episode

Volunteer Toronto's website:

The Small Nonprofit podcast is produced by Eloisa Jane Mariano