Module 8: Effective Involvement of Volunteers

In 2009, the estimated dollar value of volunteer time was $20.85 per hour.(1) However, beyond this quantifiable figure, volunteers also bring intangible benefits to the host organization such as community support and an improved public image. (2) Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the public sector consistently recognize volunteers as a crucial human resource. Effective volunteer programs can create mutually beneficial relationships between the volunteers, the paid staff, and the host organization. Conversely, poorly designed models or improperly implemented programs can lead to divisive rifts. Before delving into effective volunteer involvement, let’s confront some common misunderstandings.

Myths Surrounding Volunteers (3)

By clearing up the misconceptions above, volunteer programs can develop good practices and benefit from the establishment of the volunteer-agency relationship.

Who are Volunteers?

Volunteers are commonly considered as “unpaid help provided in an organized manner to parties to whom the worker has no obligations.”(4) A person’s decision to become a volunteer should be freely chosen and not coerced. No repayment is expected for volunteers with the exception of, perhaps, small reimbursements/stipends for traveling expenses or living costs. Volunteers generally work within a formal program with an overarching mission that subdivides into goals, plans, job positions, and tasks. The intended beneficiaries of a volunteer’s efforts should be strangers, not friends or relatives. (5)

Factors Affecting Productive Volunteer Placements

Three variables have been cited as determinants of job performance: motivation, ability, and opportunity.(6) In 1976, Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham(7) proposed a model with five job characteristics to produce high quality work and high personal satisfaction:

These characteristics are predicted to funnel into a person’s experienced meaningfulness of the work and their sense of personal responsibility for the outcome. In addition, others have proposed that contextual work elements such as supervisory styles and peer interaction can influence job performance.(8)

Types of Volunteering Work

One way to categorize volunteers is by their duration of commitment. Periodic (episodic) volunteers serve on a routine basis over an extended period of time.(9) There are also one-time placements that are short-term, which often require less intensive recruitment processes. Another way to classify volunteers is by the type of work that they do. In the Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management (2005), three types of volunteer work are highlighted:

Research on successful volunteering programs has shown that the first step is to establish the rationale behind the installation of unpaid positions. Determining why volunteers are needed (organizational requirements and gaps) and why citizens should donate their time (motivations of volunteers) should seed a volunteering program/position before its final implementation.

Incentives for Volunteering

By definition, volunteering does not result in a direct, tangible financial remuneration. Volunteers can still reap benefits in the form of improved social status (reputation) and social opportunities (networking)(13). Other volunteers give their time because of religious obligations, a family history of volunteerism, a communal spirit, personal gains, or “just for fun”. (14)  In light of this diversity, how does one choose which organization to volunteer with? Generally speaking, most often a volunteer resonates with a particular group’s mission and cause. (15) In a survey conducted with volunteer fundraisers in the non-profit sector, the following were stated in order of importance as the top five reasons for the volunteer’s commitment: belief in the organization’s mission, recognition and appreciation, personal relationships with staff, support from staff, and the belief that they are making positive change. Keeping these findings in mind can aid recruitment efforts (marketing and selection), program structure (supervisory roles and recognition systems), and the crafting of individual positions.

Best Practices in Volunteering Programs

What is the correlation between the best practices in volunteer program design and administration and the benefits realized from volunteer involvement?

Designated Management: To have a recognized management party - often designated as the “director”, “manager”, or “coordinator” - serves to instill a mediator between the organization executives, employees, and the volunteers.(16) On one hand, this helps the volunteer program gain formal recognition and high level support; on the other, this designates someone to manage and assist volunteers in this well-defined segment of work.

Written Policies: Clear policies serve as “psychological contracts” between the volunteers and the host organization.  This agreement reduces volunteer withdrawal and turnover. Contracts, orientation handbooks, and training manuals are forms of tangible information packets that formalize the volunteer-organization relationship. From the management end, it holds the organization accountable for providing adequate volunteer support, such as clear job descriptions, trainings and staff mentors. These can also facilitate the task of volunteer management and help develop a consistent pattern of volunteer involvement. Explicit guidelines should govern the volunteer program to “allay any apprehensions of employees and volunteers alike regarding the involvement of lay citizens and the rights and responsibilities of each party.”(17)

Job Descriptions: Specifications for volunteer positions, along with written volunteer program guidelines, serve to clarify and differentiate what the unpaid worker is and isn’t expected to do.(18) Well-defined job descriptions aid targeted recruitment campaigns and effective applicant screening. From the applicants’ perspective, it gives them a realistic expectation of what the position entails. With that in mind, job descriptions should include the title, responsibilities, benefits, qualifications, and commitment (frequency and duration).  Volunteer managers should note a potential volunteer’s extrinsic motivation (tangible external rewards such as gifts and awards) and intrinsic motivation (inherent, autonomous desires such as to help the less fortunate). Nondescript postings may result in volunteers feeling dissatisfied and worse yet, may lead to discontinuation of involvement.(19)

Volunteer Support: Ranging from orientation and in-service training, to follow-up assessment and post-volunteer feedback, volunteer support follows through from the initiation to the maturation of volunteers. Regardless of the assignment, it is crucial for newcomers to receive an orientation to introduce the organization’s culture and operation.(20) Basic training may be provided to equip new volunteers with relevant skills, knowledge, and job-related know-how.(21) Once the volunteer settles down and is comfortable in performing the assigned tasks, further development and advancement can be sought. Whether it’s participation in upgrade trainings, scheduled classes, or shadowing specialized workers, opportunities for progression in the organization should be available and accessible. By overseeing the growth of volunteers within the organization, boredom and burnout can be prevented and attrition rates can be kept in check.

Advanced Roles for Mature Volunteers: One way to achieve the dual objectives of providing support for new volunteers and stimulating senior volunteers is by the establishment of volunteering administrative and leadership roles.(22) Experienced volunteers can lead projects, run orientation sessions, coordinate activities, and serve as mentors for newcomers. Not only does this form of added responsibility show volunteers that they are trusted and their experience is valued, but it also creates a closed-loop, self-sustaining volunteer-driven program.

Recognition and Appreciation: It is important for volunteers to feel that their efforts, unique talents, and personalities are making a difference.(23) One inexpensive way to recognize a volunteer’s work is through the distribution of volunteer newsletters.(24) By receiving updates on exclusive events, job listings, and announcements (such as organizational changes), volunteers can feel that they are important in the organization’s fabric resulting in further commitment.

Evaluation and Reflection: Feedback on the service experience should come from the clients, fellow staff/volunteers, and program leaders. (25) The primary purpose of this is not to “judge” the volunteers or their performances but to evaluate what has been achieved and what still needs to be done (or changed).(26)  Formal records of contribution, such as logs for volunteering hours, may be helpful to be used as metrics for evaluations. As well, journals and annual reports written by the volunteers may serve as vehicles for documenting personal growth and goal attainment.

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Footnotes

(1) Independent Sector. “Value of volunteer time.” Independent Sector 2010.

(2) Brudney J. “The Effective Use of Volunteers: best practices for the public sector.” Law and Contemporary Problems 1999: 62(4): 219-255.

(3) Brudney J. “The Effective Use of Volunteers: best practices for the public sector.” Law and Contemporary Problems 1999: 62(4): 219-255.

(4) Millette V. & Gane M. “Designing volunteers’ tasks to maximize motivation, satisfaction and performance: the impact of job characteristics on volunteer engagement.” Motiv Emot 2008: 32: 11-22.

(5) Cnaan R., Handy F., Wadsworth M. “Defining who is a volunteer: conceptual and empirical considerations.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 1996: 25(3): 364-383. 

(6) Millette V. & Gane M. “Designing volunteers’ tasks to maximize motivation, satisfaction and performance: the impact of job characteristics on volunteer engagement.” Motiv Emot 2008: 32: 11-22.

(7) Hackman R. & Oldham G. “Motivation through the design of work: test of a theory.” Organizational Behavior and Human Perofmrance 1976 (16): 250-279.

(8) Millette V. & Gane M. “Designing volunteers’ tasks to maximize motivation, satisfaction and performance: the impact of job characteristics on volunteer engagement.” Motiv Emot 2008: 32: 11-22.

(9) McCurley S. & Ellis S. “Thinking the unthinkable: are we using the wrong model for volunteer work?” e-Volunteerism 2003: 3(3).

(10) Cornell Public Service Center. “Translator Interpreter Program.” Retrieved on 29 April 2011.

(11) Brudney J. “Designing and managing volunteer programs.” The Jossey-Bass handbook of nonprofit leadership and management. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2005: 310-44.

(12) Lysakowski L. “What’s in it for me?” New Directions for Philanthropic Fundraising 2003: 39: 53-64. 

(13) Cnaan R., Handy F., Wadsworth M. “Defining who is a volunteer: conceptual and empirical considerations.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 1996: 25(3): 364-83. 

(14) Lysakowski L. “What’s in it for me?” New Directions for Philanthropic Fundraising 2003: 39: 53-64. 

(15) Lysakowski L. “What’s in it for me?” New Directions for Philanthropic Fundraising 2003: 39: 53-64. 

(16) Brudney J. “The Effective Use of Volunteers: best practices for the public sector.” Law and Contemporary Problems 1999: 62(4): 219-255.

(17) Brudney J. “The Effective Use of Volunteers: best practices for the public sector.” Law and Contemporary Problems 1999: 62(4): 219-255.

(18) Brudney J. “The Effective Use of Volunteers: best practices for the public sector.” Law and Contemporary Problems 1999: 62(4): 219-255.

(19) Millette V. & Gane M. “Designing volunteers’ tasks to maximize motivation, satisfaction and performance: the impact of job characteristics on volunteer engagement.” Motiv Emot 2008: 32: 11-22.

(20) Fischer J. & Cole K. Leadership and management of volunteer programs: a guide for volunteer administrators. Jossey-Bass 2003.

(21) Brudney J. “The Effective Use of Volunteers: best practices for the public sector.” Law and Contemporary Problems 1999: 62(4): 219-255.

(22) Fischer J. & Cole K. Leadership and management of volunteer programs: a guide for volunteer administrators. Jossey-Bass 2003.

(23) McCurley S & Lynch R. Volunteering Management: Mobility all the Resources of the Community. Heritage Arts Publishing 1996.

(24) Brudney J. “The Effective Use of Volunteers: best practices for the public sector.” Law and Contemporary Problems 1999: 62(4): 219-255.

(25) Honnet E., Poulsen S., The Johnson Foundation. “Principles of Good Practice for Combining Service and Learning.” National Society for Internships and Experimental Education 1989.

(26) Brudney J. “The Effective Use of Volunteers: best practices for the public sector.” Law and Contemporary Problems 1999: 62(4): 219-255.