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Maintaining the good work of millions – successful volunteer management

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Volunteering Australia estimates that there are five million volunteers in Australia who contribute over 700 million hours in community service each year. Maintaining and retaining the good work of these millions is a key part of not-for-profit management.

Sourcing volunteers

From the beginning, it is important to make signing up as a volunteer simple.

People of different ages and experiences will come to volunteering in their own way. Understanding this, organisations vary their sourcing strategies accordingly, advertising with community groups, social media sites, or corporate programs – whatever fits the volunteering bill.

Training for volunteers

Training programs are a key part of the volunteer management process for all the organisations, particularly as volunteers come to organisations with a variety of skill sets and experiences.

In many organisations, the work volunteers do is diverse and training varies greatly depending on specific roles. For example, at the Salvation Army, volunteers are involved in everyday operations, from working at a Salvos store to working in the Emergency Services teams and providing emotional support. St Vincent de Paul is also organisation that provides workshops on leadership development, dealing with difficult behaviours and team building.

All organisations recognise that a general orientation or induction program is crucial to helping volunteers settle into the rhythm and culture of the organisation. First aid and occupational health and safety training also run across the board.

Many organisations are guided by the National Standards for Involving Volunteers in Not For Profit Organisations as defined by Volunteering Australia. While these standards are not a legal requirement, Volunteering Australia recommends that organisations follow the recommendations and best practice procedures that they have gathered together from years of consultation.

Tracy McCown, Volunteer Specialist with the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF), also outlined the different training programs available to volunteers. These vary from an ambassador program, where volunteers are given speaker training, “to learn to tell their story with meaning”, to administrative support, and on-the-job training for those involved in fundraising.

Whatever the particular role of the volunteer, McCown emphasises that “Personal ongoing support is always available from the managers and other members of staff.”

Coordinating volunteers

Most organisations co-ordinate their volunteers through communication systems administered electronically and personally.

In many of the national organisations, volunteers are recruited centrally through head office and then referred to particular sites or to particular roles to fill vacancies.

In the case of the Salvation Army and Mission Australia, their online volunteer databases enable volunteers to be selected based on the skills or experienced required, the geographic location and the availability of the specific volunteer role.

St Vincent de Paul has a similar system, but also emphasises the need for face-to-face visits. The organisation’s manager of volunteer development, Hazel Maynard says “I attend meetings, meetings, meetings.”

She emphasises that “distance is no barrier to effective volunteer management.”

The biggest challenges

  • 1. Finding suitable roles

Rachel Savage from the Salvation Army emphasises the importance of offering volunteers ways in which they can make a real contribution to the organisation. However, she notes that it can be hard to find suitable roles for volunteers that are new or have specific experiences, or during busy periods such as Christmas.

  • 2. Maintaining work/life balance

Retention of volunteers, particularly as people try to retain a work/life balance, is a major challenge for organisations such as the National Trust and Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria (VFBV).

Alan Monti from VFBV elaborates. “Giving that extra time to community service is becoming increasingly hard. At VFBV, economics and environmental conditions are a challenge as many volunteers are self employed farmers who need to tend to their livelihoods during harvest or cropping.”

  • 3. Changing demographics

Population growth and shifts, an ageing demographic of volunteers, and encouraging people from diverse cultural backgrounds to take up voluntary community service roles are identified as ‘big challenges’ by VFBV and St Vincent de Paul.

Monti explains that young and willing volunteers in rural communities are seeking work and careers in major provincial cities and metropolitan Melbourne. He says that this presents small, sometimes isolated rural communities with enormous challenges in recruiting and retaining volunteers.

  • 4. Risk of circumstance

Obviously of more importance to an organisation like VFBV, is the challenge of risk and circumstance.

Monti says “As has been seen with the devastating fires of February 2009, community awareness and preparedness is the biggest challenge facing Victorian communities.

“Local fire brigades are at the frontline of this challenge. These volunteers and staff have a mighty challenge ahead to ensure their communities understand their circumstances.”

Top three effective volunteer management skills

  • 1. Communication

Whether it involves engaging with volunteers of different demographics and skills, or with different opinions and expectations, communication was recognised across the board as crucial to effective volunteer management.

Over Christmas, Mission Australia had to turn people away. Paul Andrews from the organisation explains the importance of managing interactions over this time in a respectful and informative way. “Every person who approached us was made to feel appreciated, given clear information as to why we were unable to place them and what they could do in the future if they wanted to volunteer.”

McCown at NBCF gives an example of speakers-in-training who express strong personal views about breast cancer treatments or negative opinions about medical treatments. “This situation requires intervention to reinforce the Speaker’s responsibility as a representative of the NBCF and as such cannot jeopardize the organisation’s reputation.”

  • 2. Central administration

A central administration system was also considered crucial to effective volunteer management. For the Salvation Army, this was particularly important in managing the response to the Victorian Bush fires, when hundreds of people from Victoria and across the country contacted The Salvation Army to offer assistance.

“The online registration system proved to be imperative,” Savage says. “Those in need, who were geographically spread across the state, could access lists of willing and potentially local people who wanted to help.”

  • 3. Recognition of volunteers

Organisations emphasised the time devoted to retaining their volunteers and maintaining good relations, including thanking volunteers and ensuring their contribution are recognised and valued.

Some organisations, such as National Trust, Mission Australia and the Salvation Army, issue certificates to recognise years of service, outstanding contributions and for achieving significant milestones. Many hold thank you events.

Ultimately, McCown says that volunteer management comes down to relationships.

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