Volunteer programs are essential for a number of reasons. To the organization, involvement of offering volunteer roles is an opportunity to connect with the school district and community on a personal level. Tapping into free talent and time to help support your mission, initiatives and programs helps strengthen and grow your organization as a whole. Volunteers who feel like they’ve made a difference and had a positive experience become ambassadors for your organization and spread the word by sharing their experience with family, friends and the community. There’s simply no better positive exposure for any company, than word of mouth.
Benefits don’t end where the organization does. There are also many things volunteers get out of the experience as well, including but not limited to; fulfillment, having a meaningful opportunity to give back, helping to develop others, community connectedness, personal growth, and professional experience for teens or college age-volunteers, or those looking to get back into the workforce.
Why is staff buy-in important? Without staff buy-in at all levels (teachers, front office staff, program managers, etc.) and senior leadership support, a volunteer program will never get off the ground and become successful.
How can you get staff buy-in and sustain it? Initially, the vision and enthusiasm needs to come from the top down as a supported initiative to utilize and value volunteer support. Once that has been communicated, the next step is to educate staff as to what that means for them. There is always the hurdle of yes “the idea of it sounds great” but people do need to put in the work to get a payoff. Roles need to be created, staff need to make their volunteers feel welcome, needed and appreciated. Once a staff member has positive experience utilizing volunteer support and can see the impact/added value, word spreads and interest gains momentum.
Why is this step important? With any program or initiative, you want to get as much planning work done before launching. Budget is fairly minimal (typically on the smaller end of an organization’s spectrum), but you want to be sure you have enough to get it going and plan for it to grow moving forward.
What other factors are there to consider? Salary/benefits, number of sites and estimate of how many volunteers your organization might be in need of. Does the estimated workload constitute a part time position, full time position or multiple positions?
What are some examples of things the program might require while getting up and running? Some examples might include; marketing materials, manual and forms (design/printing costs), cost of background checks, and recognition costs (party, awards/thank you cards).
A common mistake is to recruit volunteers for the sake of recruiting. This philosophy ends up with dissatisfaction from both parties because there aren’t clearly defined roles and expectations. First, identify that there is a valid need. This will lead volunteers to feeling like they are utilized and valued in your organization.
What are some factors to consider when trying to identify a need?
- General volunteer (extra set of hands)
- Skill based
- The volunteer’s expectations
Some requests can range from fairly general “need a volunteer to help supervise a lunch/recess period” to a very skill based request “volunteer needs to have an engineering degree/background to support the Robotics team or Project Lead the Way”. Placing these types of requests first begins by getting to know your volunteers and reviewing their applications.
An application is the first step in gathering information about who the volunteer is, what their areas of interest are, background (education, career). This will help you get a better understanding of why they are interested in volunteering and where to place them later on.
There are many things you can ask volunteers to include on their application, but here are the basics:
- Contact information
- Areas of interest (grade levels, site preferences, special skills, previous volunteer experience
- Ever been convicted of a felony?
- Media release (with option to deny permission)
- Demographics if your organization wants to track (gender, race, age)–also listed as optional and not mandatory
Here’s an example of a volunteer application from Edina Public Schools.
Why are background checks necessary for volunteers? Simple. Safety, risk management and liability. Volunteers working in and around a school district are going to have direct contact with children who are minors. For their safety, it’s best that adults who are entrusted to represent the school district/community education be vetted.
What factors are there to consider when implementing a background check policy? First of all, you will need to consider how often your organization will require renewal. You will then need to determine cost. Volunteers are already volunteering their time and talent and may be put-off having to pay for a background check. Discuss this with your team and see if it’s possible for the district, or community education to cover the costs. The benefits of what the program/department/school district/community/students/participants receive, far outweigh the price tag.
So where and how can I get a background check on volunteers? First check with your district human resources department. There are different types of checks and your school may require a certain kind. The most basic check is a state-only check, so if a person had a criminal history in another state, it would not show up. There are also national searches, which is recommended, as well as international searches. There are a lot of agencies to choose from whether it’s a local BCA (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension), Verified Volunteers, Orange Tree Screening, etc.
It’s very important to outline what you expect of your volunteers. This sets the tone and parameters before they even have their first shift–they physically sign off on this document and acts as a binding agreement in case behavioral issues arise.
Verbiage can be more strict or flexible based on what your staff/team/administration agrees is necessary for volunteers to be willing to abide by. In my experience, organizations utilizing volunteers who come into contact with any type of vulnerable population tend to have the strictest guidelines.
Guidelines surrounding dress code, giving/receiving gifts, sharing personal contact information, sharing details names or any other information about the people you volunteer with, providing transportation, social media/photo policies and more are all examples that are covered in this section.
Orientation is an essential time to thoroughly explain the role and expectations to the volunteer. It’s also the perfect setting to get to know more about them and work towards personalizing their experience. Although the volunteer may directly report to a different staff lead once their shift rotations begin, this allows you to get to know them and they you.
The orientation/interview process depending on your volume of incoming volunteers can be very time consuming. Although many people feel it’s best to get to know volunteers on a 1:1 basis, sometimes time/space constraints can be tough to pull it off with a greater volume. Some organizations offer specific orientation times (twice per month, for example) where they lead group orientation instead of individuals.
Example interview/orientation questions
- How would you describe yourself?
- Share some about your family/childhood history.
- Tell me about your background (educational, professional, etc.)
- What makes you interested in volunteering in (your organization’s name)? What are you hoping to gain?
- Describe a past volunteer experience you have enjoyed?
When looking for responses, it’s not so much about the answer volunteers give, but getting to know them so you can better place them in a role that would be mutually beneficial. Volunteer managers should know that you do NOT need to say yes and onboard every volunteer—you’re not obligated to accept everyone. If there are any red flags or you feel they would not be a good fit, you need to feel comfortable addressing that they are not a fit for your organization. It’s not an easy thing to do, but typically if you place someone that you have major doubts about–there are issues down the line with behavior, performance, boundaries, etc.
Why are references important? References are important because you want to collect feedback from people as a character check and they often provide great insight into who the applying volunteer is as a person.
Keep in mind that references are a small part of the full picture. People use references they vet and know will say positive things about them.
What are some things to consider when thinking about placement for volunteers? Current needs, personality and skill set, what they are looking to do or according to what they want out of a volunteer experience. If we currently don’t have something open that seems to be a match, that’s not the end of the story. There are many opportunities out there that a staff member maybe just hasn’t submitted a request for. In these cases, I gather more information from the volunteer as to what their ideal role would be, then set out to connect with staff who may have a lead. 99% of the time there is something that comes up to place the volunteer with.
Follow-up typically occurs after the volunteer has completed a couple of shifts. Collecting feedback from the volunteer and staff lead is an important piece to ensuring overall program health and growth.
Make the staff and volunteer feel that they have a voice. Nobody is locked into something if it’s not the right fit. Many time, a volunteer won’t give you feedback unless it’s asked for. If you don’t check in to see how things are going, and they are not enjoying themselves, they typically just stop showing up/quit.
Another factor to consider is that you may need to be ready to go in another direction and have a backup plan if either party (volunteer/staff lead) isn’t feeling it’s a fit. Sometimes there just needs to be a brief discussion for troubleshooting, other times the volunteer may be placed in a new role or may not be a fit for the organization depending on feedback and circumstances.
Although behavior issues can be few and far between, they will happen, and it’s a situation you want to be ready for. These instances can be tricky, so you want to know what the protocol will be for your organization, so you are prepared, well versed, professional and stick to the message. Risk management/liability factors.
What other factors are there to consider? The confidentiality, boundaries, and code of conduct information that you have a volunteer sign off on during orientation is your safety net. It gives you a binding documented contract between the organization and volunteer that states the volunteer will adhere to a specific set of guidelines. If a volunteer violates these rules, it gives the organization an easy out to part ways with the volunteer.
In less seriously circumstances, it could be that the volunteer is still a great asset, but maybe doesn’t gel well with a staff lead (personality conflicts). These sometimes are easily addressed by finding a new role for the volunteer to try, or providing additional training for volunteer and/or staff lead.
The volunteer program staff is responsible for meeting/discussing and solving these situations when they arise.
People choose to volunteer on their own time. Why is recognition important? Simple. Retention. Retaining good volunteers is the best way to streamline and grow a volunteer program. You also want to take the time to let volunteers know how much they are appreciated. A volunteer has thousands of opportunities to choose from–and out of those, they’ve selected your program to donate their time and talents.
There are a variety of ways you can choose to recognize volunteers and take into account the size of your budget when planning. An e-newsletter is essentially free, but is a bit less personal and formal since it’s electronic. Other budget friendly options are candy and a thank you sign/poster by where they sign in for their shift, hand written cards to mail to their home address etc. Parties can be simple (cookies and coffee) or very elaborate (award ceremonies, program/speakers, etc.). Also consider focusing on them during National Volunteer Appreciation Month in April.
Volunteers returning year after year is ideal for a successful program. They get to know staff on a deeper level, are more invested in the organization’s mission, and spread the word to recruit more volunteers because they are enjoying their experience. Retention equals satisfaction.
What other factors are there to consider? Who’s staying? Why are they staying? Take a careful look at which volunteers continue to return and why. Survey monkey is a great took for collecting any type of data. You want to be sure that your program is attracting volunteers who work hard, and are committed to the mission of your organization. You don’t want to get caught up having a high retention rate, but most stick around because it’s easy for them to collect hours (college requirements, employer requirements), they can show up and do what they want and are not actually adding much to your organization.