Q&A: Planning for Volunteers

Sarah Elliston

Sarah (Sam) Elliston has been a volunteer manager and consultant for more than 20 years. Her company, Sarah Elliston Consulting, trains on the topic, and she is a frequent conference presenter and writer on volunteer management. As part of her job at the United Way of Greater Cincinnati, she created the Volunteer Cincinnati Program, and she currently works as the volunteer coordinator for the New Thought Unity Center in Cincinnati. She is a certified volunteer administrator, and an adjunct instructor at the Union Institute & University and Northern Kentucky University. She also teaches at the Cincinnati Association of Volunteer Administrators and is a faculty member of the Midwest Institute for Reality Therapy. 

Q: A lot of child-serving agencies aren’t thrilled with the idea of starting, or expanding, volunteer programs. Given that they’re a lot of work, why should agencies bother?
A: Young people respond to volunteers differently than staff. If you have a volunteer coming on a consistent basis, building a relationship, it might be the only person in that child’s life who’s not getting paid to be their ‘friend.’ They realize the volunteer is coming because they want to — not because they’re getting paid — and that can be dramatic for the child.

If you have a group of 8-10 young people with one paid staff person, versus a group with 8-10 young people with one staff person and five volunteers, which is better? Which has the greater capacity to develop better relationships and outcomes for the kids? If you define volunteers as a quality enhancement to an agency to help serve clients much more effectively, then how can someone be against them?

Agencies say they can’t measure the value of volunteers, because it’s a ‘soft’ relationship. My response is, how do they measure the value of their staff, and what inhibits them from doing the same with volunteers? Usually they say they don’t have the time, and that’s because they haven’t decided to dedicate somebody to it. I suggest finding someone on the staff who can give some time to an evaluation and who can recruit volunteers to help with it. Once it’s set up, and an agency has identified how to value volunteers and how to collect data, then it can be done year after year. College professors are always looking for opportunities like these for their research or statistics classes. Agencies already evaluate their programs and staff, so it’s just a matter of walking around the other side and applying it to volunteers.

Q: That said, how do agencies get started?
A: The first step is to ask, If you were given a grant to hire a new person in every department, what would you have them do? Have each department chew on that and develop the tasks they think are the most pressing. Then ask, how could some of that be done by people who aren’t being paid?

When I do trainings, I ask, ‘Why do you want to have volunteers and why don’t you; what are the positives and negatives?’ And I develop two lists with their responses. Then I ask, ‘Why do you work here; what are the benefits?’ and the lists start looking the same. In other words, the reasons for having volunteers and the reasons staff work at an organization are often the same.

A task force can get an agency started, maybe with someone from the board and a couple people from the community, or a few donors. But, once an agency starts designing volunteer opportunities, they have to put a structure in place. If you don’t have somebody on staff whose job it is to manage volunteers, it’s wasting everyone’s time. Sometimes you can find funding to pay a temporary, part-time salary for someone to put that structure in place, do trainings, make ‘friends’ for the volunteer program, and work with the community and the staff.

A new volunteer coordinator should get to know the staff who are least resistant and get them good volunteers, because then other staff will start to get interested. One way to eliminate resistance is to have a senior staff person work with a volunteer and then report to other staff about what they were able to accomplish because of that volunteer (a report, a special project, etc.). A senior staff’s praise of a volunteer, plus the results, can have a great deal of influence.

The other piece is that if an employee is evaluated on their ability to work with volunteers, then you better believe they start working with volunteers. Organizations can add it to performance reviews, or if organizations have a point evaluation system, people who work with volunteers can get extra points. Have the volunteer coordinator take a few minutes in orientations to new employees to say, ‘Here’s what the volunteer program does, here’s how you get a volunteer, and here’s how the volunteer program can support you.’

Q: What if an agency wants to start a volunteer program, but lacks the funding for a dedicated coordinator?
A: An organization I worked for had a board member who was really committed [to the idea of having volunteers], and paid for the organization to consult with someone to design a strategy. Then she went out and did a fundraiser to fund the position. That’s pretty unusual, but it doesn’t hurt to have a volunteer involved in the development of the opportunities. There are usually one or two board members really committed to having a volunteer program, and a good development director can work with them to develop a position. If it’s part-time then they’re not paying benefits, and I advocate for a new part-time position, rather than adding it to someone who is already working there.

Q: Have you seen any research that addresses the cost of a coordinator versus the benefit of volunteers?
A: I haven’t seen any studies, but most of the volunteer coordinators I work with do return-on-investment calculations in their productivity reports. If you take the dollar amount that’s being paid to the volunteer coordinator, plus whatever their budget is, and you match it against the dollar value of the volunteers’ hours — even if you value volunteer hours at minimum wage — the return on investment is probably 200% or 300%.

Q: Describe some of the ways you’ve seen child-serving agencies use volunteers.
A: First of all, agencies can get some really skilled people to do projects for them, like reports or website work, because people are looking for work right now and need to do something or they will stall out and never get out of bed in the morning.

One really successful volunteer opportunity I know of was at an agency that housed kids on a temporary basis. Volunteers came once a week and did homework with the kids or played a game or watched a movie. It was very popular for people who were 25-35, and since they were showing up every week it became a social thing for the adults, too. It was pretty incredible. The volunteer coordinator thought it was successful because volunteers were building a relationship they knew was not going to be forever, not even a year. So they could put the energy into it and enjoy it, knowing the young person was moving on.

Another successful model is with an organization for young people who look like they’re going to fall through the cracks, but have the wherewithal to go to college. The kids apply to the program and if accepted, live in a structured, school-focused environment with house parents, go to school, do extracurricular activities and go home on the weekends. The agency provides mentors for each child to connect with each week, either with activities, or calling, or sometimes just texting. Some of the mentors are in their 40’s and 50’s, but a lot are young professionals. They also do group activities like going to a ballgame or to the circus, so they can be with their young person, but also be with other volunteers. Again, it becomes a social thing for the adults, and that aspect seems to be very successful.

Q: There are lots of AmeriCorps volunteers around right now. How do they compare with unpaid volunteers?
A: My experience with AmeriCorps volunteers is that they come with a structure; they don’t just come and work for you, they have other obligations to the AmeriCorps organization like going to trainings, which can sometimes get in the way. It’s like having an intern that comes with some strings; there is a lot of red tape and paperwork. That being said, it is still worth the investment, if the individual is qualified.

Some organizations use their AmeriCorps person as their coordinator of volunteers, which is fine as long as the agency gives them the support they need, and realizes they’ll have to start over every year.

AmeriCorps also often wants an agency to take three or four volunteers, not just one, so that’s different. When you have one AmeriCorps person and they have a good relationship with their supervisor, it works. When you have three or four of them, then they become ‘the AmeriCorps people,’ which can keep them separate from the staff.

Q: Faith communities are an obvious source of volunteers for social service agencies, yet social services don’t always know how to make the connection with them. What do you recommend?
A: If there is a church on the corner, go to your donor list and see if any of them go to that church. Or, go to the church for a couple of Sundays and see if there is anyone you know, because that person will be a much more influential spokesperson. The most powerful recruitment tool an agency has with a church is to have someone in the congregation talk about his or her experience volunteering with the organization.

An agency can set up a display after a service, or put opportunities in the church bulletin, but that’s only useful if it’s mentioned during the service. Sometimes churches have specific missions, so a volunteer project that is connected to a mission might be more successful.

An organization needs to go to a church and say, ‘Here’s what we do, can we find a way to work together?’ If they come in saying, ‘Help us, what can you give us?’ it’s not going to work. Organizations should make opportunities available to groups if possible, so four or five people can show up and help together. Also, if the young people from an agency come and do service at the church, the church will be appreciative and that’s how you start to build a relationship.

Coming at it from the church perspective, I can tell you that we have 300-400 people on a Sunday and we have challenges meeting our internal volunteer needs, much less doing a lot in the community. We currently support a local school with tutoring and school supplies and it has not been easy to find people to tutor or mentor for our own projects within the church.

Q: How do you feel about replacing paid staff with volunteers? 
A: The idea of bringing in volunteers for people who are laid off is asking for a lot of trouble. If people are being laid off, it’s the worst time to start a volunteer program because the staff are already uncomfortable. If they have any inkling that they might be replaced by a volunteer — that’s the kiss of death — it’s a really good way to have staff resistance.

Q: What about this model: cut a position or two, have volunteers fill in the gaps and pay remaining staff more?
A: I have a feeling that an agency would never do it, because the staff’s reaction is, you’re going to lay off my co-worker and you’re going to give me a raise? Don’t give me the raise; just give us all salary cuts so we can all keep working. It’s a great idea, but the reality is that it will probably never fly. However, staff might be more willing to work with volunteers if they know that there aren’t going to be more cutbacks and the C.E.O. says we’re not replacing paid staff with volunteers, but want to fill in the task gaps with volunteers.

Q: How do you know when to fire a volunteer? 
A: For the same reasons you would fire a paid staff: if they break the rules, period. There’s always someone in every group who annoys everyone, or who is inappropriate and won’t change. What you try to do is move them to a position in the organization where they have less influence so they’re still connected. Usually the person who makes life difficult for everybody really needs some kind of an outlet — they would have left if they wanted to go. Also, an agency shouldn’t let a volunteer come every day. If someone says they can come every day say, ‘That’s wonderful, we can use you two days a week.’ If you become the only thing that person has, you become their family and then it’s harder to fire them if you need to.

Q: How do successful volunteer programs look?
A: In a successful program, paid staff is interested in involving volunteers. The agency is thinking of ways to involve volunteers; there is a process for intake, orientation and placement, and volunteers are integrated throughout the organization. The volunteer program should reflect the diversity of the clients, which can be tough for some organizations. Another indicator is that the board is actively involved, and really knows about the program. Also, there’s an opportunity for volunteers to give feedback. A healthy volunteer program will have people moving from being volunteers onto committees, and maybe eventually to the board.

There’s no preparation in an unsuccessful program — no one knows when the volunteer is coming, there’s nowhere for them to sit or put their things. It’s tragic when someone calls or emails an agency about a volunteer opportunity and isn’t responded to within 24 hours. High turnover of volunteers is another characteristic, and back to successful programs, you can’t automatically assume that just because there is no turnover, a volunteer program is successful. What it might mean is that it’s entrenched. There needs to be some turnover because that’s healthy. But, if you have high turnover, or if 50 people come for an orientation and only three show up to do the work, then it’s not working. In an unsuccessful or unhealthy program you’ll notice a ‘we-they’ mentality on the part of the staff against the volunteers. Whereas in an organization where the volunteer program is successful, the ‘we-they’ doesn’t exist, everyone works together towards the same goal.

This interview was conducted by Youth Catalytics research associate Mindi Wisman. It has been edited for brevity.