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Careful planning helps rec departments make most of volunteers

By Wynne Whyman

A Treasured Resource: Volunteers

Volunteers are a cherished resource for any organization. Volunteers may already be involved in your organization, in parent groups in schools, alumni groups, and service project groups. In addition, some people are looking for ways to improve the local community, service clubs are looking for worthwhile projects, high school students need community service hours for graduation, corporations want to sponsor community days, Girl Scouts want to do Gold projects, Boy Scouts want to do Eagle projects, people in national service organizations are looking for volunteer opportunities, and people need to perform community service hours required by the courts. Each of these groups of volunteers represents people with unique experiences, expectations, and needs. As a result, you may work differently with each group as you manage your site and facility projects.

Most volunteers are motivated by a true desire to make a difference. Volunteers can be your ace in the hole, enabling projects to be completed that might otherwise languish because of lack of funds or labor. Be aware of the following volunteer trends when selecting and designing volunteer projects:

  • Volunteer time is limited, and sometimes decreasing. According to an Independent Sector report, Giving and Volunteering in the United States (2001), 44 percent of the adult population volunteered 3.6 hours per week, a total that may be divided among many organizations. In the 2004 Canadian study, National Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating, 45 percent of the population volunteered an average of 3.2 hours per week. (Mandatory community service is included in these estimates.)
  • People who volunteer often want shorter-term or one-time activities rather than long-term commitments.
  • Regulations are specifying the types and boundaries of some volunteer work.
  • Through the use of technology, volunteers across the country can do volunteer work at home.

There is some new vocabulary to reflect these changes such as episodic volunteers for short-term volunteers and virtual volunteers for volunteers who work at a distance. When soliciting volunteers, use language that speaks to their needs. In addition to describing the work, describe how the work will be done, such as, "work with a team to tear down the old drywall" or, "learn new skills from our team captain extraordinaire." You’ll also want to describe the impact the work will have on the participants, such as "taking down the old fence will clear the way for the next crew to install a playground fence that will be safer for the children."

Keep in mind that people volunteer for many reasons. It is not just about the work getting done; people are looking to feel a sense of accomplishment, do something much needed for participants, learn a new skill, or meet people with similar values. Organizations benefiting from the work of volunteers must give something back to those volunteers, while keeping an eye on the mission of the organization. Invite volunteers to join in the activities by enthusiastically expressing your appreciation and showing them how they can connect.

When people think of site and facility volunteers, they commonly think of physical projects: painting, cleaning, electrical work, and so on. However, an effective volunteer program for site and facilities can include work such as cooking a meal for the work crew, being a photographer, or conducting research on the Internet at home. Others may wish to contribute gifts in kind or send a check. Other volunteers are interested in planning, organizing, or governance committee work. Consider all forms of volunteering in your planning. Clearly define the volunteer opportunities available and outline the time requirements for each.

To keep your volunteers feeling valued, strive to place them in jobs that best use their talents. A useful method is to briefly describe the projects that need to be done and allow volunteers to sign on for specific projects. This helps establish a clear understanding between the organization and the volunteer. When you use a chart similar to tool 3.5, potential volunteers have a clear understanding of their commitment, the value and importance of the project, and the expectations of the project.


Volunteers come to organizations in a variety of ways. Some call, e-mail, or send a resume when they move to town. Others you may actively recruit because of the skills you know they have. A general organizational interest survey is helpful if you have many volunteers to keep track of. The types of site and facility questions you can include are shown in tool 3.6. You may also decide to combine the interest survey with a volunteer application to include a photograph release and background check.

The interest survey can help you determine the depth and breadth of a volunteer’s skills. After discussions with the volunteer for clarification, you are ready to verify any specialized skills by verifying photocopies of licenses and certifications, performing reference checks, or having a tryout period with an initial project.

When you collect volunteer information, it is essential to have a process in place for accessing and using the data. For example, if you need plumbing help, you need to be able to easily use your list or database to find volunteers with plumbing licenses without looking at every paper form. Being organized gives you a short list from which to choose.

Volunteers should be successful, and their projects should be worthwhile to the organization. The last thing you want is for a staff member to have to redo a volunteer project because it was not done well. This is frustrating for volunteers and staff alike. Thus, select, design, and supervise projects so all can be successful.

A high-quality volunteer program can add depth, value, support, and financial savings to the organization. However, a successful volunteer program doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work by the volunteer coordinator, volunteers, and staff. The program is not just about getting the work done successfully; it is also about focusing on the volunteers themselves. The organization needs to care for the volunteers, use their strengths, respect their time, and provide a fantastic experience-all while keeping the needs of the organization in mind.

The tasks for organizing a volunteer program can be grouped into five parts as described in Working Effectively With Volunteers below.

Working Effectively With Volunteers

There are five points for managing your volunteer program to make it stellar.

Preparation

  • Develop and implement a clear risk management plan for volunteer work. (See chapter 11 for risk management concerns in working with volunteers.)
  • Investigate and clarify regulations and codes pertinent to the projects.
  • Develop an annual volunteer project chart that includes the details of timing, specific skills required, and number of people needed (see tool 3.5). Include direct project work (skilled and general work) and indirect work (first aid, photography, cooking, publicity, article writing, database work, virtual research). Where possible, schedule tasks around the volunteer’s schedule, provide flexibility, and offer options. Include appropriate projects for youth and older adults. Can a nonskilled crew prepare the materials for the skilled labor a week prior?
  • Develop an annual wish list of gift-in-kind needs, including supplies and materials for work projects.
  • Prepare written materials, such as job descriptions, a photography release, agreements (expected hours, milestones, benchmarks, and project begin and end dates), applications, and a volunteer handbook (with policies and procedures).
  • Do you need a volunteer planning committee?

Invitation

  • Coordinate with the publicity person to highlight volunteer opportunities and their beneficial impact on participants. Publish in newsletters and on the Web, send e-mails, and post on strategically located bulletin boards.
  • Collect volunteer applications. Input information in a volunteer database.
  • Use screening techniques: Check licensing, verify work experience, gather references. Verify skills using an external source when appropriate.
  • Match volunteers’ work styles and philosophies to the organization’s mission, needs, and strategic plan.
  • Confirm project information to volunteers, including dates and times, meal(s), materials to bring, and clothing.
  • Sign written agreements as appropriate.
  • Hold an orientation and give general information about the organization: its mission, policies, and procedures; the impact of the volunteer program; and benefits. This may be done at the start of the project work.

Project Work

  • Don’t waste a volunteer’s time. Be completely organized when volunteers arrive to work. Have tools and supplies assembled and prepared as appropriate.
  • In case of emergency, have communication equipment, a first aid box, and an emergency vehicle ready.
  • Conduct a training specific to the project, including expectations, the availability of first aid, project hazards, and skill training.
  • Plan for volunteers to be supervised by skilled people who focus on the safety of volunteers and the quality of work. Choose team leaders who have the required leadership skills, and provide leader orientation for those leading large groups or projects. Designate a "technical expert" to assist as necessary. For instance, a team leader who is a professional painter may act as the technical expert on preparing aged wood siding for repainting. Figure 3.2 illustrates a possible supervisory structure using paid or volunteer supervisory staff with volunteer workers on a short-term project.

Wrap-Up

  • Clean up, gather tools, collect trash, and protect work that isn’t quite finished.
  • Gather volunteer feedback about their experiences using a project evaluation such as shown in tool 3.7. Provide a way for volunteers to turn in the evaluation anonymously to make sure you get the "real scoop." Be sure to address any complaints immediately. The compiled information can be used in newsletter articles, as an evaluation tool, and as data for planning other events. Comments given under the "what was the most rewarding" section make great additions to the publicity for your next volunteer opportunity.
  • Evaluate volunteers, as applicable.
  • Keep records, including the number of volunteers, the total hours worked, and any incidents that occurred. Summarize volunteer evaluations and project evaluations. Use the results to improve the next project and strengthen your volunteer initiatives.

Recognition

  • Express appreciation to each volunteer. Volunteers should feel good about the contributions they’ve made.
  • Publicize the work that the volunteers have done in newsletters and on the Web.
  • Plan for volunteer recognition awards or events.
  • Hang signs or plaques on the project highlighting volunteer work.

 

This is an excerpt from Outdoor Site and Facility Management: Tools for Creating Memorable Places.

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