Events Council Blog

Being an Effective Volunteer

Aug 31, 2016
Jason Carroll, CMP
Visit Tampa Bay
jcarroll@visittampabay.com

Volunteering doesn’t mean the same thing it did 50 years ago Now more than ever, the people who choose to volunteer in their spare time as unpaid ambassadors to an organization need to find increased value in what they are committing to be part of. Showing up to stuff envelopes for a community organization is no longer enough to fulfill the needs of today’s volunteer.

To understand what it takes to be both an effective volunteer, and how to work with and manage a volunteer, requires both parties to recognize why a person chooses to volunteer in the first place. The common assumption is that the individual has an inclination to serve society through their own personal skills or interests, and a desire to make a positive difference. While this is certainly true, the more important question is why they are volunteering for a specific position or organization. A personal affinity to an organization is usually what motivates someone to donate their time and energy; however, how can we guarantee they don’t become a person who uses valuable staff time and resources without contributing enough to cover the costs of those resources? Our goal is to keep our volunteers engaged and interested enough to ensure that they are providing a service that benefits the organization.  

First things first

To be an effective volunteer you must first be able to do the following:

1. Decide how much time you have to spare.
2. Find something you are passionate about.
3. Look for a volunteer position that excites you.
4. Understand the big picture of the organization and how your specific volunteer role will make a difference
5. Be open to try something outside of your comfort zone.

Training

“There is only one thing worse than training a volunteer and having them leave. That is not training a volunteer and having them stay.” -Anonymous

Allowing a volunteer to work in a position without the proper training is not fair to either party and will eventually set the new working relationship up for failure.  People deserve to be told what is expected of them and in return they should be upfront and honest about their abilities to meet those expectations. 
Job descriptions for each position will help to explain the expectations of the role to the volunteer and also show that the organization takes that specific position seriously, putting emphasis and importance on that particular job. It is encouraged to have a written job description for every volunteer position in the organization.

Communication

It is good to know right from the start the best way in which to communicate with each other.  Volunteers vary in ages and generational gaps are unavoidable. A one-size-fits-all approach to communication does not work. The simplest way to find out the best approach to take when communicating with someone is by asking the other person how he or she prefers to be connected with. Is it by email or phone, daytime or evening, brief or descriptive? Emailing a person who prefers to be called on the phone and only checks their email account once a week will not foster good communications. A successful volunteer manager will tailor their approach with a volunteer to assure it suits that person best.

Hard fact - It may not work out

Yes, it happens. Not everyone is suited for every volunteer role. Many times the volunteer manager may not know the individual well enough to be able to place them in the position that would fit them best. Many volunteers stay in jobs they aren’t suited for because they don’t want to be a burden or cause extra work for someone. In reality, the best thing that a volunteer can do is to tell their manager that the role they have been given is not right for them and that they should be moved to something else that would better suit them. The truth is the manager likely knows this as well and is just not making that change for fear of offending or embarrassing the volunteer. 

Evaluation

This is the most commonly forgotten step of the process. It takes time and a concerted effort to evaluate the success and challenges of working in a volunteer position and in managing the volunteer. However, without this step it becomes very difficult to learn from your experience and make positive changes in how you recruit volunteers or how you choose volunteer roles in which you are contributing to the organization while also learning and growing.  

Here are some specific questions that both the volunteer and the volunteer manager should think about when evaluating their own experience.

• Did I learn something from this volunteer experience?
• Did I help the organization move forward in some way?
• Did I make changes to the position as needed to help the organization in their goals?
• What relationships did I create from this experience?
• How can those relationships benefit me or my organization in the future?
• Where do I want to go from here?