Joining those myths-that-will-not-die like "volunteers are free" and "anyone can manage volunteers" is the whopper "all organizations should/can engage volunteers." As anyone who has been a professional volunteer manager can tell you, this is not at all a given.
While many organizations would like to think that they are volunteer-ready, the reality is that a thoughtful and strategic assessment should take place before a successful volunteer program can be launched and maintained. In this section, we provide some resources for determining 1) if your organization should engage volunteers, 2) whether your organization can engage volunteers, and finally, 3) how you can start the process of making your organization volunteer-ready:
- Why is Volunteer Program Assessment Important?
- Step #1: Who Are We?
- Step #2: Make Your Case
- Step #3: Talk to Staff Members
Why Is Volunteer Program Assessment Important?
Volunteer Victoria, a volunteer center in Victoria, BC, Canada, advises in their 2001 Resource Guide that it is vital for organizations to take the time to assess their volunteer program capacity first as "successful program design can assist your organization to take best advantage of all that a volunteer can bring. At the same time, it can assist you, as a volunteer coordinator/ manager, to minimize the amount of time and energy you spend on day-to-day trouble-shooting in your volunteer program and to maximize your efforts to recruit, support, and keep your valuable volunteers. You will find that the time and effort you spend in planning today will be worth its weight in gold tomorrow."
Indeed, assessing an organization's capacity to engage volunteers can ensure that a volunteer program is well-thought out, volunteer positions are both valuable and meaningful (in other words, benefiting both the volunteer and the organization), and that infrastructure and resources are available to support volunteers in the organization. Given the importance of this process, several assessment steps have been developed:
Step #1: Who Are We?
According to Sarah Jane Rehnborg, PhD. and Betsy Clubine, the first step in assessing whether there is capacity to engage volunteers involves taking a good look at the organization's "history, culture, and cause." Specifically, this means delving into the history of the organization, including whether or not volunteers were engaged in the past and the success/failure of those endeavors, assessing the image and public perception of the organization, revisiting the mission and vision, and considering the organization's in-office work culture.
Step #2: Make Your Case
Easily the most ambitious phase of the assessment process, an organization should be able to make its case as to why it should and/or can engage volunteers. To effectively do this, they should answer a number of exploratory questions, including:
- Why should we involve volunteers?
According to ServiceLeader.org, volunteers are invaluable because they symbolize the community's ownership in the organization, serve as bridges to certain populations who might prefer to interact with volunteers over staff, can engage in activities that staff cannot (i.e. advocating for the organization or commenting on particular political positions), help to reach new audiences, can become financial donors, and can even potentially become staff members.
- How can volunteers help further the mission of our organization?
- "What will the future be like because of the volunteer program?"
This question, crafted by the Governor's Office on Service and Volunteerism in Maryland, is a great way to frame exploring the vision of the volunteer program in terms of impact. Another way of asking this question, suggested by Volunteer Victoria, is to explore the specific goals and objectives of developing a volunteer program in your organization.
- Where do we need volunteers to serve in our organization?
The National CASA Association suggests breaking this down further by asking if there are tasks/activities that staff don't want to do, tasks/activities that staff don't have time to do, and tasks/activities that can be expanded with volunteer assistance.
- What tasks/roles would be good for potential volunteers?
- What skills and knowledge do volunteers need to take on these tasks/roles?
- Is it appropriate for volunteers to do these tasks/roles rather than staff members?
- What meaningful opportunities are there for volunteers to engage in our organization?
- What benefits are there for potential volunteers?
- What benefits are there for the organization to gain from involving volunteers?
- Does the organization have the infrastructure to support and provide guidance to volunteers? Has the organization designated a volunteer management professional to oversee the program? How will volunteers and staff work together?
- What additional staff resources are available to the volunteer program?
- What fiscal resources are available to the volunteer program?
- What are some of the problems one should expect in the future as well as possible solutions to these problems?
There are a number of free online resources and tools for guiding this self-assessment, including:
- Developing a Volunteer Program – Monika Penner, CharityVillage
- Staff Assessment Survey on Volunteer Involvement – Kentucky Commission on Community Volunteerism and Service
Step #3: Talk to Staff Members
Once the initial questions have been probed, it is important to engage the rest of the organization's staff in the dialogue. This will ensure not only that staff have been included in the process but that the volunteer program is planned with a real understanding of areas where training for staff may be needed. Similarly, these conversations speak to the organizational culture and whether it is an appropriate environment for volunteers.
According to the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, a volunteer organization in the United Kingdom, there are several key areas that need to be explored with staff members. First, one should discuss the different levels of experience staff members have with volunteers, including supervisory experience, working side-by-side with volunteers, and whether or not they volunteer themselves. Second, the comfort level of staff members in working with volunteers can be explored by asking if staff members feel there are certain jobs that are inappropriate for volunteers as well as training areas that would be necessary before volunteers come onboard. Finally, the WCVA suggests a frank conversation regarding any concerns staff members might have about including volunteers; for example, asking if "there [are] worries about loss of staff jobs?"
While the WCVA offers their potential questions assuming one-on-one conversation, there are other methods for determining staff attitudes towards implementing a volunteer program. For example, one could administer a questionnaire. Similarly, a suggestion box for questions and concerns could be a good way to garner anonymous, and perhaps more honest, feedback.
Beyond exploring the concerns and experiences of staff members towards volunteers, there is the additional question of assessing need. Discussing volunteer program planning with staff members is an opportunity to find out what their volunteer needs are, what meaningful volunteer opportunities exist in their area, and what kind of management support they can offer.