Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How to get more out of your volunteers and make them happier at the same time

Research is clear that there are many benefits to cross-training employees and volunteers are no different. Benefits include:
  • a better understanding of the broader processes.
  • a better understanding the efforts and restrictions of their fellow volunteers
  • an ability to fill in temporarily for other volunteers more easily.
  • greater satisfaction as a volunteer.
Consider the following:

1. Imagine that you, as a manager of volunteers for a social service agency are hiring an administrative assistant. The list has been narrowed down to two. They are really equal candidates except for a couple of things. Both have fifteen years of work experience. One has fifteen years of experience as an administrative assistant. The other has ten years as an administrative assistant, another two as direct mail manager for a nonprofit’s fundraising department and three as a full time cook in a soup kitchen. Which would you choose?

2. Imagine for a moment that you’re a manager of volunteers at a hospital and you need to fill a single position for a volunteer to help families deal with the grief of losing a loved one. Two new volunteers have applied for the position. They are basically equal except for a couple of things. One has 10 years experience as a volunteer in a hospital gift shop. The other has 5 years in a hospital gift shop, 3 years at a hospital information booth and 2 years in an affiliated children’s hospital. Which would you choose?

3. In some organizations volunteers are un-severable from the position. “Sue is an E.R. volunteer and Jackie is a gift shop volunteer.” If Jackie the Gift Shop volunteer had prior work experience or training in the Intensive Care Unit , would she be able to better fulfill her role of helping family members choose a gift for a loved one in intensive care?

4. In some businesses jobs are clearly defined. You are the manger of volunteers and perhaps someone else is the manger of fundraising (or any other department) and each of you has your own isolated jobs to do. Do you ever feel that others on staff don’t know what you do for the organization? Do you feel that it would be beneficial for you and your organization if your boss or other senior managers had experience in your job?

So what patterns do you seen in your answers above? Did you pick the administrative assistant with experience in three areas in question 1 and the volunteer with the varied experience in question 2? It’s hard not to recognize how a gift shop volunteer with experience in other areas of the hospital can offer better guidance. At almost every conference I go to I hear at least one person lament about how their job is not understood by the people with whom they work.

There are two points here. One is that sometimes there is little difference between the management of paid people and volunteers. There is plenty of evidence that cross training benefits employees and companies. I think for cross training purposes we can learn from the experiences of the employment side of people management.

The second and far more important point to this article is that volunteers who are cross-trained in other positions can work in their primary position much better if they are trained in other positions in your organization. The difference is not between nonprofits and for-profits. It is one difference between a good volunteer program and a great one.