Pitfalls to Avoid in Dealing with Volunteers

Many charitable organizations rely heavily on volunteers. Oftentimes, volunteers help fill the gap between program needs and staff limitations. Programs like Meals On Wheels are completely volunteer-driven. Some organizations use volunteers to perform office administrative tasks which help keep their departments running smoothly. Volunteerism also offers a way of providing work experience for clients who are job searching. Senior management, especially executive directors and members of the board, give speeches and presentations at annual general meetings and media interviews that include talking about the crucial role volunteers play in their organizations, with statistics about the number of volunteer hours served, etc. Unfortunately, while these organizations publicly value volunteers, their actual practices sometimes leave a lot to be desired. I’ve spent a few years working in all aspects of dealing with volunteers: recruitment, orientation, training, recognition and termination. Along the way, I’ve seen staff who know how to treat their volunteers right (as evidenced by the fact that some of these volunteers have stayed on for 30+ years). I’ve unfortunately also seen staff who truly did not understand how to supervise and work with this valuable resource. Here are five pitfalls your organization should avoid in dealing with volunteers:

1) Not providing adequate training, orientation, supervision and feedback. When volunteers decide to dedicate their valuable time to work at your organization, it’s usually because they believe in your mission and want to support your services and programs. They deserve to be treated as valued members of your workforce. New volunteers are often eager to contribute, but you want to know the primary reason volunteers leave your organization? Not having adequate training to perform their roles, or insufficient supervision/feedback, leaving them feeling unimportant and not valued. It takes dedicated staff hours to recruit volunteers. Don’t waste those efforts by not investing the proper resources into training and orienting your volunteers. Remember, volunteers are already prepared to invest their time and energy with you, so you need to figure out how to engage them as the valuable resources they are.

2) Not meeting the volunteers’ needs for volunteering. People volunteer for many reasons. A recent immigrant may be unable to secure Canadian employment, and may volunteer at an office to gain professional experience for resume-building. A retiree who has lost a spouse may volunteer because it gets them out of the house and helps them cope with their loss. So take the time to talk to your volunteers, get to know them and understand their motivations. If they are seeking professional experience but then end up spending the day sitting around with little to do because their supervisor didn’t prepare enough work, or they’re given work that has no value on a resume, that’s disrespecting the volunteer. Employees are paid and so will tolerate a lot about a working environment that’s not ideal. But volunteers, since they have no financial remuneration, are free to leave anytime.

3) Making assumptions about your volunteers’ capabilities. Don’t make assumptions about your volunteers’ skillsets based on what they currently do for you. Just because they’re not serving in an executive capacity (such as sitting on your board), doesn’t mean they don’t have professional skills. I had an office administration volunteer once who did basic office work for me (answering the phone, filing and data entry). I later discovered that this volunteer had a PhD in Agricultural Molecular Biotechnology. In her native country, she was chief advisor to the Minister of Agriculture on improving crop yields to combat widespread hunger and child mortality. I learned from this to not make preliminary assumptions. You never know what skills and knowledge your volunteers have.

4) Not Ensuring volunteers get their reimbursements promptly. If your organization has formal policies regarding the reimbursements volunteers are entitled to (eg. transportation tickets, meal stipends), ensure you are very prompt in processing and getting the reimbursements to them. Anyone tasked with supervising volunteers should follow this protocol. Don’t put your volunteers in the uncomfortable position of having to ask for their reimbursements. No one wants to feel like they’re bothering you for a few dollars, but believe me, if they’re owed that they can quickly feel resentful if their reimbursements aren’t paid in a timely manner, not to mention it reflects poorly on the organization and its staff. Prompt reimbursement is especially important if your volunteer is on public assistance, and volunteering was mandated by their case worker. I knew a volunteer who was living on just $650 of assistance monthly, which in a large metropolis like Toronto is not an amount one can live on comfortably. Yet shift after shift, the reimbursements due weren’t paid, with staff continually saying “reimbursements vary by department” (untrue; it was an organizational-wide policy). The volunteer was humiliated at having to beg for the 2 transit tokens and $5 lunch allowance each time. The staff demonstrated an appalling lack of sensitivity to the fact that this volunteer, living on $650 per month, had to pay $6.50 to come and go home afterwards to complete work for our organization, for which reimbursements weren’t paid promptly.

5) Not thanking your volunteers. Aside from the volunteer recognition lunches, receptions and events organized by your volunteer relations department, be sure to thank your volunteers after each and every shift. Remember, they don’t have to volunteer with you. There are many other causes they can support, but they chose you. So be sure you thank them for doing so.