Being the boss: Tips and ideas on how to handle volunteers

How to handle volunteers

When you’re the leader of an organization, it’s your job to manage everything – including volunteers. Sometimes managing them can be difficult – after all, you’re not paying them, so what can you really ask of them? Many leaders find it difficult to manage volunteers appropriately, and feel badly about demanding too much of them. However, there are several ways to manage them effectively.

First, before you even try to get your volunteers, figure out exactly what you need from them. Write out complete job descriptions (even if you only use these for your reference right now). Know exactly what you need the volunteers to cover. It’s awkward to talk to a volunteer and explain, “You’ll need to do…uh…different tasks, I’m not entirely sure what yet.” So have a complete list ready, including any deadlines that are necessary.

Being the boss: Tips and ideas on how to handle volunteers

Then, solicit volunteers. Make a brief description of what you need available for them to look at. Estimate the time commitment. List anything they get out of it (experience for a resume, perhaps). Be ready to answer any questions volunteers might have. Provide your contact information and the best hours to contact you (if you’re using the phone, as opposed to email).
Send potential volunteers a complete job description. Remind them that they are volunteers; you can’t pay, but you need people who can commit to the project anyway. There will be people who will want to be involved. Don’t be afraid to demand that your requirements be met, and don’t be afraid to turn away volunteers who are hesitant about committing to the project. You want people who WANT to be there, and who are skilled (if necessary) enough to do the work. People who want to be there will do the work without pay; people who are hesitant will not be reliable at all.

Don’t be wishy-washy when handling volunteers, especially in a start-up business. Don’t let your volunteers think it’s okay for your project to be low on their priority list. Treat the project the same way you’d treat a paid job: excuses can be accepted for real reasons (personal illness, death in the family, other unavoidable circumstance), but not because “I didn’t feel like it” or “I was too busy.” Don’t say things to your writers like, “I apologize in advance, I realize you’re just a volunteer and I don’t want to demand too much of you…I know you have other priorities.” This gives the volunteer an excuse to duck out of responsibilities.

Once a volunteer is positive he wants to commit to your project, ask him to accept the job description (or a contract that lays out a job description plus other responsibilities, non-monetary compensation, etc.). It helps a lot to have a contract to send to potential volunteers, because it lets them see exactly what you expect from them in terms of work, quality of work, etc. A contract might be organized like this:

A. Age/experience requirements

B. Job description

C. Deadlines/time tables

D. Acceptable reasons for not completing work

E. What happens if they don’t complete their work

Be very clear in your contract; it will save you trouble later. This is only necessary for long, ongoing projects. It isn’t necessary for more casual projects.

Follow up with your volunteers. Keep their contact information handy. Keep a log of the hours they’ve worked or the contact you’ve had with them. Send them any policy changes immediately. Send them friendly deadline reminders if they’re getting behind. Set a friendly, semi-lenient, but organized tone with your volunteers. Don’t allow them to slack off, but don’t rule with an iron fist.

You will have to accept excuses somewhat more often from your volunteers than you would from paid workers. A paid worker might only be able to take vacation time at certain times of the year, or have to complete their work anyway after an unavoidable excuse. With volunteers, as long as they let you know what’s going on (and it is a legitimate reason), you will probably need to let them get out of part of the work. And that’s okay – they ARE volunteers.

Keep a list of your best volunteers, and give them as much responsibility as they’re willing and able to handle. Give other, less reliable volunteers less responsibility, and consider asking them to leave the project if they aren’t meeting your requirements. You have an agenda; you’re likely volunteering your time to head the project. If they don’t do their work, you have to pick up the slack. Find volunteers who are reliable, and “fire” those who repeatedly aren’t.

Be available to your volunteers. Answer questions and be professional. Act like a boss, because that’s what you are. You are running some sort of business, even if it’s just a school committee. Firm, fair, and clear leaders are the best, and volunteers will be pleased to work with you if you lead well. Be strong, be clear, and be lenient, and your project will go well.

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