Q&A: Running a Successful Volunteer Program

Stephanie Bolson

Stephanie Bolson is Community Relations Manager and Manager of Volunteers at Albertina Kerr Centers, a Portland, Ore., agency serving children and adults with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges. Kerr provides a wide range of psychiatric services with 43 group homes throughout the state, foster care, intensive inpatient psychiatric care and community-based treatment. Kerr works with hundreds of volunteers who perform a range of duties, from staffing the agency’s restaurant and thrift shop to working in the group homes. This is the third in our series about managing volunteer programs in youth-serving agencies. We spoke to her in 2010.

Q: Albertina Kerr seems to have an unusually ambitious and successful volunteer program. Why and how did you develop it? 
A: We have a long history of community support and inviting the community to participate. If we didn’t have the support of the community, I don’t think our agency would work. Our senior leadership is definitely the charge that makes that possible, and when you have leadership that believes strongly in volunteerism, everything falls into place.

Q: How does your senior leadership show that support?
A: They accept volunteers themselves. Our CEO usually has master’s level interns with him, so that sets a good example. Both vice presidents facilitate the placement of volunteers and interns, so staff see that their manager or someone higher up at the agency is interested in seeing volunteers succeed. I also ask senior staff to bring it up to the board as much as possible, and I encourage our board to volunteer outside of their board activities as frequently as possible as well. Setting the example has a big impact.

Q: What are some ways that volunteers work with youth at Kerr?
A: One of the things I realized about Kerr when I came here was that some staff were more comfortable with volunteers than others, and some volunteers wanted more responsibility and time commitment than others. So, I needed the program to work for the whole spectrum of people involved. So I thought, if I had half an hour to volunteer and I had never worked with youth with developmental disabilities, but I knew I wanted to do something, what could I do? And that’s how we came up with a volunteer role that people are really excited about — a birthday cake baker. We compile a list of birthdays of the clients in that volunteers’ community and the volunteer bakes birthday cakes for the clients on their list. Volunteers can make whatever they want, and they can deliver them and have a slice of cake if they want, and that’s their commitment to volunteering. There is no requirement to go through, no background check, so it skips those hoops, they do something positive and if they already like to bake, then it’s a win-win.

I try to have things for volunteers on all levels so they can either help once or get super-involved. At Kerr, super-involved is being a ‘visiting friend.’ Visiting friends come once a week for at least nine months, visit with a youth and do whatever the youth wants to do — basketball, watching videos, arts and crafts. A good number of the youth in our programs do not have family involvement, so it’s really nice for them to have a caring adult in their life that’s not being paid to care. Of course we do have to jump through all the hoops — background check, training, orientation.

In between the super-involved and one-time-only options, we have people who run [supervised] skills groups and teach things like yoga or knitting in our semi-residential programs. In some group homes volunteers work alongside staff, but it depends on the level of care. We have some homes where it’s probably not appropriate for a volunteer to be there on a regular basis. But, in homes where behavioral issues are very minimal, volunteers can come and give the staff a break and make dinner for everyone and volunteers can feel purposeful and be teaching the children a life skill — how to cook for themselves.

Q: How else have you tailored volunteer opportunities to prospective volunteers? 
A: I try to really key into that group of people who are interested in doing one-time volunteer activities. I challenged myself to come up with at least 1 one-time volunteer activity each month that could involve a group of people. One idea I came up with for January is a ‘new start’ opportunity. A lot of Kerr youth are aging out of group homes, and there is always a need for follow-up care, and to prepare them for independent living. I thought it would be great if we could get a bunch of professionals to help the youth practice interviewing with an employer, or how to fill out an application, or how to make a résumé. So volunteers come and we set up mock interviews and the youth come and bring their applications and they dress the part. Afterwards it’s more informal and they have pizza together and the kids and volunteers get to know each other. That’s a skill that a professional can provide just one time and really feel like they’re making a direct impact.

There are also a lot of local events here that are geared toward providing funding for children’s nonprofits. There is an air show and a golf tournament, so I will say to the people running the events: ‘We’ll provide you with the volunteers if we get a portion of your proceeds in return.’ Those are always really great opportunities for volunteers, because they get to participate in the event and feel like their contribution is going to financially benefit both agencies. It’s a little more difficult for volunteer management, but we get volunteers who do it year after year, which makes recruitment pretty easy.

I’ve also contacted some of our group homes that are more reluctant to accept volunteers and have said to them, ‘Your home has probably seen a lot of wear and tear this year. Maybe you’d like to have it painted?’ And volunteers can come and we don’t ask the staff to supervise them — the facilities staff do that. So they don’t even have to supervise the volunteers and it’s a great group project; volunteers love labor-oriented opportunities.

Q: Kerr has a crisis psychiatric program. How do you work with volunteers in that program?
A: We have interns there, both master’s level and undergraduate level. The undergrads are usually psychology majors or are considering going into social work. The master’s level interns are in our art therapy program. So we have an art therapist and she manages the volunteers who are interested in art therapy.

We have skills classes at the crisis program and volunteers do those quite a bit. We have a half court gymnasium and an outdoor playground so they can do things like lead exercise classes. We also do pet therapy and the volunteers really enjoy that. The staff of the crisis program know the children the best and know whether it’s appropriate to have them interact with a volunteer or not. But in a good many cases it’s beneficial for the children.

Q: Which Kerr volunteer opportunities have been the most successful?
A: Right now people are more interested in doing a one-time thing that provides a direct impact on the community. My most successful opportunity to date has been a Valentine-making party. Last year I had 25 slots open for volunteers and 60 people expressed interest in it. I provided the volunteers with a list of every single individual served by Kerr and they pumped out nearly 700 Valentine’s Day cards, individualized for each person. It’s a great entry event for someone who wants to follow up with further involvement. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most expensive activities we’ve done, since we purchased the supplies. This year we’ve revamped it and were asking volunteers from last year to host a volunteer party at their home so we can have even more people join the party — they do it with their friends and they bring their own supplies. We just provide them with the list of names.

Q: Are there opportunities that just haven’t worked?
A: Yes, absolutely. You’re always going to have failures, you just hope you learn from them. The opportunities that don’t work are when you don’t have staff support. One thing I learned much too slowly [when I started here], was that if staff haven’t asked for a volunteer, don’t give them a volunteer. It might be written into their job description, it might be something that senior leadership are really pushing, but if they don’t have the time, if they don’t identify the need, they’re not going to ask for a volunteer. So, the least successful placements I’ve had are when staff only take a volunteer because they’re being pushed into it. That’s not a good experience for anyone — not the staff, not the volunteers, not the people being served, and the volunteer will disappear when that happens.

Q: How do you recruit volunteers?
A: There are two sets of volunteers at Kerr. One set runs the businesses — the restaurant, the gift shop and consignment shop/thrift store. That is almost entirely volunteer-run and managed; they have 3 paid staff and about 500 rotating volunteers. For that piece of the organization, recruitment is from the inside out. Someone who volunteers there has a neighbor or a friend [they recruit], so we often have mothers, daughters, cousins, aunts and grandmas who all volunteer there and tell others; it’s word of mouth, and has been around for a long time.

The volunteers I manage are for the agency side. They help at fundraisers, events, in group homes, with administrative tasks; they are a younger set and more keyed into online recruitment efforts. Sometimes they come in because they know staff who work here and hear positive things, or they just happen to be online searching for volunteer opportunities and come across us. One approach we have is to ask people to bring their skill sets to us. It’s a way we can appeal to people and they can still be volunteering, but maybe in a capacity that they’re more interested in. For example, maybe they are a singer-songwriter and they want to bring music therapy to a program.

I have to do very little recruitment though, which is amazing. It happens more organically than I would have dreamed. When I need to recruit, I go to colleges and universities because there are so many in this area that have early childhood development or social work programs, and all of them require practicuums or internships. I also target websites for individuals who are retired or taking a break from their professional lives and want to do pro bono work-skilled volunteering. They post their credentials and then I can see if they would be a good match.

Q: Do you specifically target the local faith community? 
A: I’m no more interested in recruiting from a faith community than I am in recruiting from a major corporation. They’re both equally viable places to recruit from. I think faith communities have been known in the past to provide support, but a lot of times faith communities are struggling to provide support for their own organizations. They’re looking for volunteers to help them; they’re looking for their congregation to support them. I have noticed that faith communities are really motivated to do supply drives, because there’s no up front cost for them. I provide them with a barrel and the promotional materials and people drop things off [and it is successful]. As far as volunteering, I haven’t noticed that people from faith communities volunteer more than, for instance, people who work for large corporations.

Q: How have you utilized corporate volunteers?
A: There are a lot of large organizations out here — Intel, Nike, Google, and they all have volunteer programs where people can take five hours of their day and still be getting their wage, but go and volunteer their time. Most of the time they contact me and then I struggle to find something that 25 people can do on a Friday afternoon. So that’s a challenge. Our organization really can’t do large groups, but that’s part of my goal is to develop monthly group activities so if someone says, I’ve got a group of 15 volunteers from my accounting program, I can say, ‘We have this day available and this is the planned activity.’

Q: So you’ve recruited them — how do you screen and train them to work with children?
A: First they fill out our volunteer application, then they meet with me for an interview, and we do a background check, call references, and a number of other things [for example, TB tests]. After that, they interview with whatever site supervisor they’re going to have and that will inform what kind of training they’ll need to have; if they’re going to our crisis psychiatric program, they are trained with the manual developed for that program. We have an online training program for our staff, so we developed an online training for our volunteers that they can complete from home or while they’re volunteering. That way we don’t have to host a volunteer orientation where people need to try and make it work into their schedules — they can do it on their own time. The orientation goes over things like sexual harassment, blood born pathogens, emergency preparation, Kerr’s mission and vision, general policies.

Q: As the volunteer manager, how do you spend your time? 
A: It’s different every day. Generally there’s always some fundraising, or a fundraising event, going on, so a good portion of my time is spent on logistics for that — recruiting the volunteers, training them. I also manage the in-kind donations program, so I try and find donations for our program, accept donations for our program, and make sure they go to the right programs or where they are most needed and will make the greatest impact. I review applications and interview volunteers, and attend staff meetings so people know what’s going on in the volunteer program. I also supervise the relationship between the staff and the volunteers. I always ask staff to come to me if they’re having trouble working with their volunteer. Usually that correspondence is via email so I cc their supervisor so they know what’s going on.

Q: Some agencies don’t believe that volunteers really want to work with at-risk teens. Is that something you’ve seen? How have you addressed it? 
A: When staff say volunteers don’t want to [work with at-risk teens] — well, they do it as an employee, so that means there are other people out there who will even do it for free. It’s reluctance on their part, understandably, since they sometimes see the worst of working with at-risk youth. Maybe they want to protect themselves and the people that they serve. But, I believe there is a volunteer role for every single person out there. Some might not be interested in working with at-risk youth, but there are hundreds who are. There are many students who want to go into that field, and those students are definitely interested in working with them. There are also individuals who were at-risk youth themselves at one time, so they are interested in giving back because possibly they had a positive experience with an adult and they want to provide that for someone now.

Q: What do you do to get staff enthusiastic about using volunteers?
A: I put myself on the agenda of staff meetings. Instead of doing something boring like saying, ‘This is the volunteer program, this is what we do,’ I do an activity to get people engaged and talking about volunteering and what it means for them. Then, people start looking forward to these meetings to hear about what’s going on with the volunteer program, which gets them thinking about it. The next step is figuring out how to make it easy for staff to request a volunteer. We started an online form so people can go to the form and say ‘I’m looking for a volunteer with these skills [arts and crafts, people skills, etc.] and I’m looking for them in these time periods’ and they just fill it in [from a drop-down menu], submit it, and that makes it easy for me to build a volunteer job description or match it up to one that already exists.

Q: Is supervising volunteers written into staff job descriptions?
A: Not in every case, but in most of the administrative and resource development staff job descriptions it is. It’s my goal to have it written into every job description by the end of this fiscal year. I would also love to see [working with volunteers] included in staff reviews so that they are responsible for talking about how they work with volunteers, so it’s part of their performance review.

Q: Getting volunteers is one thing, but hanging onto them is another. Many agencies say they fall down in this area. What do you do? 
A: Retaining volunteers is something we’re continuously working on. A lot of it has to do with the experience that they have at Kerr. It really makes a difference if volunteers have staff who make them feel special and part of the team. If volunteers have positive experiences they’re more likely to stay. If they don’t have that or it’s not there in spades, then I step in and say, ‘How can we make sure this volunteer sticks around?’ I do that by checking up on volunteers with surveys several times a year. I ask questions like, ‘How comfortable are you in your placement, how can we better support your volunteer efforts,’ so volunteers feel they are really involved in the decision-making about their roles and responsibilities, helps them think about the future.

I follow up with volunteers if I notice anything glaring in the evaluations like ‘I was left alone.’ I go back to the staff who are responsible for supervising volunteers and say, ‘What do you think about this response, how can we improve things?’ Another retention method is increasing responsibility as volunteers ask for it — it keeps them keyed in. If they feel like they have some sort of say in how things are going, then it’s like ownership.

Q: Have you done a formal evaluation of your volunteer program? 
A: Being able to link volunteer involvement to results that have numbers tied to them when you’re dealing with mental health and behavioral health issues is really difficult. Saying something like we had 10 volunteers in our early intervention program and that provided staff with 400 hours free to spend on paperwork is really difficult to track. But, we’re trying to figure out ways to do it.

Q: So, given your success at Kerr, what advice can you give agencies that think volunteer programs are just too much work?
A: You have to invest initially. There is a lot of work at the front end, but at the back end it provides you with more time, and pays off in bundles. It’s important to first identify the people in your agency who will be your cheerleaders and start with them; start small, you don’t need 20 volunteer roles, start with one. Start with something that you have the knowledge to train and supervise that volunteer in, and don’t overdo it.

And it’s not too much trouble! Volunteers provide services that staff would not be able to do otherwise. Maybe the volunteer is coming in and doing arts and crafts for an hour while the staff is making dinner. So the volunteers are giving the staff a break, and maybe there are fewer interruptions because someone is providing the kids with an activity that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. In that case volunteers are a time-saver for staff and are improving care for the clients, which is the most important piece. If you’re saying ‘I’m so busy I can’t deal with volunteers,’ than you actually need the help of volunteers.

This interview was conducted by Youth Catalytics research associate Mindi Wisman. It has been edited for brevity. Click here to see other Q&A’s in this series.