Managing Volunteers – Part 2 – The Role of the Volunteer Coordinator

Volunteers!  Take an employee and put them in a volunteer situation and you have a whole different persona to deal with.  In this series of postings we are taking a look at what makes volunteers tick, what motivates them, and how you can create an environment that allows your volunteers and your organization to shine.

The previous posting was about Why People Volunteer.  In this post we will address the role of the Volunteer Coordinator.

The volunteer coordinator should be someone who is organized, can lead people, and has a special talent for being kind and courteous to every volunteer.  They need to know how to delegate and share their plan with others.  There should be plenty of people to get the work done.  The coordinator’s job is to coordinate the workers, not to do the work themselves.

1.     Set Appropriate Expectations for Time Commitments

Clock - what everWhat typically happens in a volunteer situation is that a couple of people end up doing almost all of the work, almost all of the time.  When others are looking to volunteer, they take a look at the situation and see that volunteering clearly means putting in a ton of time and effort, as that is the example they see.  Most are not ready to jump in with both feet and make a huge time commitment.  They can’t see that there might be other ways to volunteer and still be useful.

Although there are those that want to be a part of the organization by giving consistently and often, I have found that most people are willing to give of their time and talent, as long as it is more or less on their terms.  What does that mean?  It means that they get to decide if a particular opportunity fits their schedule.  They don’t want to be committed to every week, every month, or (heaven forbid) every day.  They want to have the flexibility to go away on vacation, see the kids in a play, sleep late, or simply not be ‘working’ during an event.  If you ask them to commit long term, they will head for the hills, and you will lose your largest pool of people to ask for help.

It is important to make it clear that there are many ways to help and not all of them require large commitments of time.  If you present an opportunity to a prospective volunteer with clear boundaries and expectations, they can decide if they want to accept it.  It is better to say, “We need someone to help us on Thursday between 1 and 2 to clean up after the lunch” than to say, “Would you like to help out with the annual lunch?”  By being specific, the prospective volunteer knows how long it will take, when they need to be there, and what they will be doing.  If they are willing to do more than you ask, they will let you know.

2.     Provide a Framework

Putting together a plan ensures that you know how many people you need for each task, what the numerous tasks will be and how long they will take.  A plan is also something that can be shared with others.  It makes an event or day to day operation run smoothly.  Volunteers like to know where they fit into the big picture.  They like to know what is theirs to do.

There are plenty of events that are run on the most minimal of a plan.  The better that plan, the better your chances are of not only having a successful event, but of getting your volunteers to come back again next time.

3.     Create a schedule and be ready to adjust it as needed

As the volunteer coordinator, you may find yourself saying, “Darn those volunteers!   If they would just sign up for a consistent time over the next year, my job would be so much easier.”  Yes, it would, but this rarely happens.  It is your job to ensure that all time slots are filled with volunteers.  This entails coordinating the volunteer talents with the needs of the activity.  It is also your job to continually check in with the volunteers to ensure that they are still happy with the job that they have volunteered to do.  Don’t let a volunteer burn out and suddenly quit.  Discovering that a volunteer is unhappy working every week gives you an opportunity to reduce their schedule and at least be able to utilize some of their time and talent.

Some volunteers like to work consistently and often.  Others are only willing to give time on a sporadic basis.  Be flexible with your schedule and with your requests to prospective volunteers.  I remember when my elderly mother took on the job of scheduling volunteers for her church thrift store.  She had a huge calendar on the dining room table and her job was to make sure that the store had coverage each day that they were open.  She knew that she had to have 2 volunteers for each time slot.  The best part was that many of the ladies liked to work a consistent schedule.  They knew that Thursday afternoon, for instance, they would get to go to the thrift store, work the cash register, and talk to whomever was there.

But… my mother could not assume that they would be available every week.  Two weeks before the beginning of a month, she would call every volunteer and verify that they could make their commitment for the following month.  There was always a slot that had to be filled with a ‘stand-in’.  This is where the opportunities were for those that wanted to give, but did not want to make a full time commitment.  By asking, “Would you be able to work on Thursday, the 2nd, between 10 and noon?”  the potential volunteer was able to see that it was a one time commitment, there were no other strings attached, and that they were truly helping out… not by just the work they would be doing, but they were also pulling the store out of a jam.  The volunteer also had the option to say, “No, I can’t do it this time, but please keep me on your list and call again.”

Putting together a schedule of tasks and time slots is your first job.  It is also an on-going job.  As needs change, as lessons are learned, as the talent pool shifts, the schedule needs constant tweaking.  Make sure to keep your eye on the needs of the organization and the needs of the volunteers.  Always be aware of how to have them working together.

Thank You4.     You can never thank them enough!

As Volunteer Coordinator, you are in charge of ensuring that the volunteers are shown appreciation.  If you have a lot of volunteers and cannot personally talk with each one, then it is your job to assign others the job of appreciation.  I have addressed appreciation In the previous blog posting.  The important point here is to know that it is your responsibility to see that the Thank You’s are indeed given out in an authentic way.



5.     Managing the process and the results

Happy volunteers and well-oiled organizations don’t just happen.  There is a lot of thought, process, and structure that gets put into having this happen.  As the manager of the volunteers, you need to ensure that:

Jobs are well defined.  The volunteer understands what they are being asked to do.  They know when to show up, when they can leave, and are trained to perform their duties.

Volunteers are communicated with before they show up for work.  This way they know when to come, where to report, how to dress, what to bring with them and what they are expected to do.

A point of contact is assigned.  When volunteers are uncertain about how to handle an unexpected situation, they need to know who to contact.  Make sure that it is clear who their contact is and how to reach them.

Appreciation is built into the project plan (for one-time events).  This typically happens after the event is over.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that the job is over at the end of the event.  You can have your Thank You’s ready to go before hand, but they need to be mailed or distributed after the volunteer work is completed.

6.     Coordinating with others in the organization

Volunteers span many areas of an event or organization.  As the coordinator, you will be interacting with people who are in charge of their own little part of the organization.  It is important that you understand what kind of volunteer help they need and when they need it.

If you are really organized, you can give the other leaders a structure within which to request volunteer help.  The easier you make it for them to get what they want, the easier it is to fill the volunteer opportunities and to make everything look smooth and easy.

Working with Volunteer Labor is not just about having them volunteer once, but it is about how to have a staff that is happy to be there, contributing to the organization, and wanting to volunteer over and over again.  As Volunteer Coordinator you have the ability to make that happen.

In the next post, we will address the topic of Volunteer Board of Directors.


Managing Volunteers – Why People Volunteer

Volunteers!  Take an employee and put them in a volunteer situation and you have a whole different persona to deal with.  This article is designed to look at what makes volunteers tick, what motivates them, and how you can create an environment that allows your volunteers and your organization to shine.

In this posting we will address the organization with “Volunteer Labor”.   In other words, the leaders of the organization are looking for the help of volunteers.  Without this volunteer labor, the organization will not function.

Part One – Volunteer Help – Ongoing Labor that makes an Organization Function

Helping HandThere are many organizations or events that count on the contribution of time and talent of volunteers in order to function.  They are unpaid labor.  They put in their time at the thrift store, the church, the 5-K Run, the charity fundraising dinner.  These are typically non-profit organizations who count on a community of volunteers to keep them running and serving their cause.

Our volunteers are so important, yet I remember talking to the Volunteer Coordinator at my church.   She told me that every time people saw her approaching them, they looked down at the ground and scooted away in the opposite direction.  They assumed that she was going to ask them to do something. To volunteer!

People are not opposed to volunteering and helping out.  Some are even seeking out volunteer opportunities.  Wouldn’t it be nice if, as the volunteer coordinator, people sought you out to ask what could be done, instead of avoiding you?  How do you get to be the ‘go to’ person, instead of a pariah?  Here are a few things to look at and consider for your organization.

Why People Volunteer

What’s in it for volunteers?  Why do they want to give freely of their time?  If we know this, then we can look at our organization and structure it so that we provide the environment, structure and rewards that volunteers are looking for (whether they know it or not).

  1. Volunteers want to see that through their actions, they have contributed to the purpose, mission, or goals of the organization.  It can be as simple as directing people on where to park at an event or as complex as running the sound system for a charity dinner.   If at the end of their shift they can realize that without them, things would have been confusing, chaotic, not brought in as much money or that they helped even one person, then they feel good about their contribution and are willing to do it again another day.
  2. Volunteers want to have their time well utilized.  Creating a framework and structure for your event or on-going work allows volunteers to know where they fit in, where they are supposed to be and when, and what they are being asked to do.  They hate getting up at 5:00 on a Saturday morning, to arrive on time at 7:00 only to find out that no one knows where they will be working, what they will be doing, or when they will get started.  Most don’t appreciate hanging out with coffee and donuts until someone “in the know” gets a moment to handle the volunteers.
  3. Volunteers want to feel that their contribution is necessary.  Showing up at an event and seeing that there are more than enough volunteers to accomplish the job does not make them happy.  If they had known that they weren’t really ‘needed’, they could have slept in or gone golfing.  Trying to get them to volunteer for something else at another time will be very difficult.
  4. Volunteers like to be thanked.  Yes, it is pretty simple.  Say Thank You.  Not just once, but multiple times while they are working.  For one time events, make sure to send out a Thank You card or letter afterwards.  The more personal, the better.  Knowing that someone appreciates their time and contribution goes a long way to having them volunteer again.  If it is an on-going schedule of volunteer opportunities, make sure to send periodic, personalized Thank You notes.  This ensures them that you do not take them for granted and realize that without them the organization could not function.  The group ‘form letter’ thanking the volunteers seems like a good idea, but I have found it to mean very little to the recipient.  They are just bunched in with everyone else and the true appreciation is not felt.  Annual appreciation luncheons or dinners are also great if you make sure that each volunteer is addressed personally at some point during the event.  Make sure that the person thanking them knows a little about how they contribute and can at least say one thing about how that helps the organization.

The first step in running a successful volunteer organization is to know why people volunteer.  Can you look at some of your volunteer experiences and see why you either felt fulfilled or like you would never volunteer there again?

In the next blog posting, we will discuss the role of the Volunteer Coordinator and how they can establish an enviroment that has the volunteers wanting to come back over and over again.