Volunteers play a crucial part in the support and running of community organisations. About 700,000 non-profit organisations operate in Australia, of which about 35,000 employ staff. The remainder are mostly small organisations entirely dependent on the voluntary commitment of members. The management and development of volunteers and volunteering is key to the sustainability of a skilled and involved volunteer workforce.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics produced an overview of Voluntary Work in Australia in 2010, which gives a snapshot of the importance of voluntary work to national life. The total value of volunteering to the Australian economy was estimated at AU$200 billion, according to the 2010 report.
While volunteering has a substantial positive impact on society as a whole, it also provides significant benefits to the volunteers themselves. Some of these personal benefits include learning new skills, meeting new people and developing confidence.
Volunteering Queensland is the peak body for volunteering in Queensland. Along with a wealth of publications and research, they maintain a database for linking volunteers and volunteer opportunities.
Other useful links for volunteer managers include:
- Volunteering Australia
- Department of Communities volunteering information
- Queensland Government Get Involved website
Types of volunteers
The term volunteering covers many different types of activities, and includes both formal volunteering within organisations, and more informal volunteer roles outside of organisations.
Best practice guidelines for volunteering indicate that it should not be exploitative or be used to replace paid employment.
In 2010, the sport and physical recreation sector attracted the largest number of volunteers (14 per cent of the adult population or 2.3 million people).
Volunteering Australia produced a report on Key Volunteering Statistics in January 2021, including their frequency, location and demographics.
It is important that you prepare your organisation for volunteers. Here are some initial considerations to help you plan your volunteer program.
Reasons for involving volunteers and the mutual benefits
- What is the key reasons for having a volunteer program?
- What do volunteers offer?
- What does the organisation offer volunteers?
By asking these fundamental questions, you can ensure you engage and work with volunteers in accordance with your mission and in the most effective way possible.
The organisational culture
- What are the attitudes, beliefs and traditions that are fundamental to who you are as an organisation?
- What impression and impact will your current staff and culture have on new volunteers?
- What are your attitudes and beliefs in regards to volunteers?
- How welcoming is your organisation?
These attitudes and beliefs inform the way you work with volunteers. If the program is to be successful, it is critical that the organisational culture is welcoming and valuing of volunteers.
Roles and responsibilities
- Where are the areas of potential jobs for volunteers?
- Have these roles been clearly articulated and communicated?
- Who will supervise and support volunteers?
- What jobs are appropriate for volunteers who may only work for one or two days a week?
- How much flexibility can you allow around roles and responsibility?
These questions will help you develop volunteer job roles and ensure that they have adequate supervision. It will also assist you in being realistic about how many volunteers you can supervise and support.
Resources for community involvement in your program
- What resources (physical, financial and human) will you need within your organisation to sustain a healthy volunteer program?
- Are you able to get ongoing funding to continue the program?
- Have you identified leaders with adequate time to coordinate and support volunteers?
Volunteer programs require substantial resources to be effective. You will need to consider resources such as physical space and resources to do the job, as well as financial resources for everything from insurance to recognition events. Perhaps the least recognised resource requirement is that of time.
Barriers to community involvement
- What obstacles do volunteers face that might prevent them from joining or working within your organisation?
- If you have attempted to develop a volunteer program before and it has not been successful, why has this been so?
- Can you develop strategies to overcome these issues?
By examining barriers, we can develop strategies to overcome or address the most significant ones.
Once you have considered these questions, you will need to decide how your program will work. The volunteer management system should provide a planned approach to how the volunteer program is to be managed and a means of determining whether the program is achieving what it was established to do. One model for developing your program can be seen in the National Standards for Involving Volunteers in Non-Profit Organisations.
Factors to be included in a volunteer management system
Policy and procedure
These should establish a commitment to the importance of volunteer participation. Most organisation policies will apply equally to volunteers. Additional policies may include: reimbursement of expenses such as travel; volunteer recognition; definition of a volunteer; insurance; scope of volunteer involvement; plus minimum and maximum time commitment.
It is essential that all volunteer programs have available an efficient way to collect, store and retrieve essential data and information about the program. It is also crucial that personal data about individual volunteers is maintained confidentially in whatever form it is stored.
Appropriate risk management processes
For more information on volunteer risk management please refer to the Risk Management and Insurance section.
There are also a range of risk management resources and information for those working with volunteers available on the Volunteering Queensland website.
Recruit and select volunteers
There are some simple fundamental truths about volunteer recruitment:
- The most effective method of recruitment is word of mouth from current volunteers
- People don’t volunteer unless they are asked
- It is far more effective to retain a satisfied volunteer than to recruit a new one
- One volunteer, who leaves after a poor experience, will do more damage than the good done by ten excellent recruitment campaigns.
Develop volunteer roles
The first step in recruitment is to develop volunteer roles. Consider the following issues:
- Clarifying what it is the volunteer will be expected to achieve
- Identifying the boundaries of the volunteer role
- Identifying and preparing supervisors for the role
- Developing effective communication processes around the role
- Establishing a suitable place of work for the volunteer
- Identifying and obtaining necessary resources to enable the volunteer to fulfil the role
- Ensuring relevant work is available for the volunteers to do
- Developing suitable support mechanisms for the volunteers and the role
- Identifying and implementing appropriate supervision
Write the volunteer job description
Once the volunteer roles have been identified, you need to develop volunteer position descriptions. Volunteer position descriptions are essential in defining the role of the volunteer in the organisation. They provide a clear process of communicating to the volunteer what the expectations and responsibilities of the role are and set the parameters and boundaries in which the volunteer is expected to work, in order to maximise their skills, knowledge and abilities.
As a guide, position descriptions should include the following elements:
- Title of the role – what is the actual name of the position? (e.g. volunteer lifeguard, interpretive guide, receptionist)
- The need for the role – what is the purpose of this role? Why does this job need to be done?
- Time commitment – how much time and over what periods is the volunteer required to undertake this position?
- Reporting/supervision – who will directly support the volunteer and who will the volunteer be accountable to? Who will the volunteer report to? Who will the volunteer work with?
- Details of duties/activities – what are the specific tasks, functions and key areas of responsibility of the role?
- Impact of the role – why does this role exist and how will it contribute to realising the organisational mission and/or values?
- Selection criteria – what skills, knowledge abilities or qualities are required or desirable to undertake this position? Do they need a special qualification, licence, suitability notice to undertake the role?
- Benefits of the role – what skills can the volunteer gain from undertaking this role?
- Training/education opportunities – what opportunities are available to increase the volunteer skills, knowledge and abilities through training opportunities?
- Considerations specific to the role – does the role require volunteers to be working on their own? What will the working environment be like?
- Potential pathways – what opportunities does this role give for potential mobility, growth and leadership?
Develop your message and advertise
Once you have your job descriptions you can develop your message. You need to decide what you want to tell the potential volunteer about the organisation and what will encourage people to become involved. In your message you should try to address any fears that potential volunteers may have.
You can then broadcast your message through many means, including:
- Online (through sites such as Volunteering Queensland)
- Newsletters – your organisation and others
- Newspapers – local community newspapers can be very effective in targeting potential applicants from the local community and can also often be very cost effective
- Social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter)
- Word of mouth
- Community billboards
- Community announcements (radio and television)
- Local employment centres
Remember to have a process for volunteers to apply and ensure you nominate a contact person who is responsible for dealing with initial enquiries.
Interviewing should not only be viewed as a process to ascertain the suitability of a potential volunteer or as a job matching exercise, but should also maximise the opportunity to explore the potential and capacity of the applicant to ensure they have a meaningful experience of volunteering.
The first step of the interview is to ensure the potential volunteer feels comfortable and to build rapport. Do not proceed until the volunteer is comfortable.
The second step of the interview is to gain information from the potential volunteer and give them the chance to tell of their interests and their story. Some questions you may wish to consider are:
- What is your reason/motivation for wanting to volunteer?
Understanding the reasons why people want to volunteer is useful in identifying and maintaining volunteer’s motivation and making an appropriate work match.
- What are the things you like to do or are confident/comfortable doing?
Here you try to explore the current skills, knowledge, interests and potential of the volunteer.
- What are the things you would like to do or have an interest in learning?
Too often interviewers only focus on current skills and abilities, without realising the enthusiasm and commitment of volunteers to learn new skills and abilities. If you wish to focus on capacity and potential, this question is critical.
- What are the things you do not want to do and are clearly off limits?
Here you can identify what volunteers don’t like, or don’t want to do, but may feel too awkward to raise.
- Do you have any special needs or requirements in doing this work?
This is an important question in determining whether the volunteer requires additional support. It is important any questions regarding this topic focus only on requirements that relate to the specific volunteer job and are not general in nature. To do otherwise could be discriminatory.
During this step of the interview, you should provide the volunteer with information regarding the organisation and the volunteer jobs.
The final stage of the interview is to ensure that both the individual volunteer and the organisation have had the opportunity to gather information and address any questions. At this time you need to summarise any decisions that have been reached and inform the potential volunteer of what will happen next, for example a reference check or setting an orientation date. The end of the interview also provides an opportunity to thank the potential volunteer for their time.
- Make sure you allocate an appropriate amount of time for the interview conversation
- Read the potential volunteer’99s application prior to the interview
- Find a comfortable place free of interruptions for your conversation
- Provide information about the organisation
- Clearly and honestly define the requirements, expectations and benefits of the volunteer position/s
- Treat potential volunteers with respect and assess their capacity on an individual and objective basis
- When asking questions of the potential volunteer always try to ask open ended questions that encourages the applicant to provide information. Open ended questions usually start with what, how, where, when, why or who
- Remember the 70/30 rule – where the potential volunteer should do seventy percent of the talking during the interview
- Listen to what the potential volunteer is saying and what they are not saying
- Explore what the potential volunteer would like to contribute to the organisation
- Encourage the potential volunteer to discuss their experiences
Selection involves some process of matching the person to the role. While an organisation seeks volunteers to meet its needs, volunteers similarly seek an organisation which meets their needs. Matching therefore involves focusing on a win-win outcome for the organisation and the volunteer. The organisation must be able to look at themselves, the roles they have to offer and the way those jobs and the organisation are promoted through the volunteer’s eyes. Organisations need to be able to tell potential volunteers when the work they have available does not and never will approach the goals the volunteer has identified for themselves in volunteering.
Organisations have a responsibility to their clients and to potential volunteers to select the right people for particular roles. This may relate to legislative or organisational requirements but certainly relates to best practice volunteer management. It is essential that those responsible for selecting volunteers recognise the need to be able to say no to a volunteer’s request to work in a role for which they are not appropriate, and to reject some volunteer’s requests to work with the organisation in any capacity.
Finally, the organisation needs to consider appropriate screening mechanisms.
Screening covers the processes used to verify the background, qualifications, skills and experience of individuals prior to their appointment to a volunteer position. Screening is an important part of an organisation’s risk management strategy. It complements, but by no means reduces, the need for good practice in the recruitment, selection, training, supervision and support of volunteers and paid workers. Effective screening is especially important in those organisations where there is involvement with children or any other vulnerable group.
Screening may involve reference, police, driving record, blue card, yellow card or other checks as deemed necessary for the particular role or organisation. Screening promotes and maintains internal security. Any screening undertaken by an organisation must be done within state and federal legal requirements.
Supervise and support volunteers
Once the volunteer has started, it is essential that you provide adequate supervision and support for them. Providing adequate supervision of volunteers has many components and needs to reflect the role, level of responsibility and personality of the volunteer.
Ensuring effective paid staff and volunteer relations
The goal of effective staff relationships is not to assume we are all the same but rather to foster complementary relationships. It is an environment in which paid and volunteer staff are working in different roles toward the same vision, and sharing the same fundamental values about how to get there. When paid and volunteer staff recognise and value their different roles within the organisation, it creates an exciting synergy. While there are many strategies for achieving this, it is important that fears and concerns of all staff are addressed before seeking to work together.
There are several approaches you can use to develop effective relationships:
- Encourage positive feedback and constructive criticism about the volunteer program
- Encourage paid staff to voice their fears and concerns and show you are open to working with them to resolve these issues
- Be a role model. In your dealings with volunteers ensure you follow your own advice. Demonstrate the skills so that paid staff can model your behaviour
- Use a positive approach to organisational issues. Consider how volunteers could assist or add additional value to the projects being discussed. Paid staff should be sensitive to allowing volunteers to raise matters of concern
- Involve paid staff in all aspects of the program
- Develop a rationale for volunteer involvement that is understood and embraced by the paid staff
- Highlight the benefits of volunteer involvement whilst at the same time considering the fears and concerns that staff may have about working with volunteers
- Hold joint planning and staff meetings, so that volunteers and paid staff can share ideas, understand each other’s issues and develop more effective and friendly relationships
- Appoint a volunteer advocate to represent volunteers in decision-making processes
Good communication is a two way process, with regular communication and input coming from the volunteers to the organisation as well as from the organisation to the volunteers.
Approaches to facilitate communication within your organisation could include:
- Team meetings
- Regular reviews seeking volunteer’s feedback and insights about programs
- Opportunities for debriefing after significant events, where volunteer feedback is sought and valued
- Notice boards
- Pigeon holes for volunteers
- Volunteer newsletter
- Communication book
- Mail outs of specific information
- Distributing minutes of meetings
- Including volunteers as members of committees throughout the organisation
- Promoting awareness among volunteers of any volunteer representatives on various committees
- Program newsletters
- A close relationship with the supervisor
- Updating orientation after a period of time
- Spending time working with volunteers
- Social events with interactions between volunteers and paid staff
- Team or role specific updates and newsletters
- Telephone trees to ensure information is dispersed across the organisation and to encourage all to take responsibility for communication
Working with volunteer motivations
Volunteers come with a variety of motivations. These include wanting to put their values into action, seeking to learn new skills, wanting to meet people, gaining a job or wanting to develop self-confidence. Dealing effectively with different types of motivations is a critical element of effective volunteer management.
In more general terms, we can build on volunteer motivations through how our organisation works and how we manage our volunteers.
Organisational factors facilitating volunteer motivation include:
- Efficient processes for dealing with paperwork
- Minimal red tape and bureaucracy
- Systems and processes that support the volunteer work
- A busy work environment
- A fun work environment
- Opportunities for interactions with others
- A focus on the significance of all work to the organisation’s goals
- Displays of appreciation and public recognition
- A system for the recognition of volunteers
- Opportunities for volunteer comments and complaints to be shared and considered
- An appreciation of volunteers sharing areas of concern and dissatisfaction
- Opportunities for career development based on individual volunteer aspirations
- Opportunities for volunteers to take on roles with greater responsibility based on their performance
- The identification of clear and consistent objectives for the organisation as a whole and the volunteer program
- Clear communication of the direction of the organisation and the volunteer program
- A system where change is managed so the change and the need for it can be readily understood by the organisation’s volunteers
Organisational factors require commitment across the whole organisation and from the highest levels of management.
Managerial influences on motivation relate to the relationship that exists between the volunteer and the manager or supervisor to whom they are directly responsible. Managerial factors influencing volunteer motivation include:
- A balance between autonomy and supervision to meet the needs of the individual volunteer
- Provision of understanding and assistance to volunteers when problems arise
- Providing volunteers with the support necessary to enable them to solve problems themselves
- Managerial confidence and trust in the volunteers, evident through the manager’s behaviour and speech
- Open, easy and honest communication
- Personal appreciation of volunteers by their manager
- Expression of the value of the roles of volunteers and of the work they do
- Facilitation of open discussion and encouraging volunteers to raise areas of disagreement and complaint
- Provision of training and support to enable each volunteer to achieve the best performance possible
- A sense of purpose and direction for the program
Recognition is the means by which volunteers are appreciated or rewarded for their contribution to the organisation. Recognition for volunteers can be conveyed in a number of ways including both formal and informal approaches. Formal recognition strategies consist of planned approaches to formally recognise volunteer contributions. These include badges, awards and annual recognition dinners. Informal recognition strategies are usually fairly spontaneous acts of appreciation for the volunteer’s contribution and can happen on a day-to-day basis. These can include personal thanks, cards and morning teas.
A good support system is based on clear rights and responsibilities for volunteers. In developing and implementing effective support it is necessary to balance responsibility to the project or organisation and the needs of the volunteers. Volunteers must be able to access support. This means that the support should be available at appropriate times and places, and in ways that volunteers can use.
Support strategies should be able to accommodate the needs of individuals.
Support strategies should be applicable to the work volunteers are undertaking. We can consider these in terms of both individual and group support strategies.
Dealing with difficult situations
No matter how marvellous the volunteers and the program, on occasion there will be difficult issues with which you must deal. Your organisation needs to have good processes in place and deal forthrightly with the issues. Volunteer grievances, conflict within the program and disciplining a volunteer are three of the most common issues you may face.
Managing a grievance
Having a grievance procedure is important to allow volunteers an opportunity to raise questions, express dissatisfaction or discuss problems or concerns. It ensures volunteers are listened to and aren’t powerless within the organisation if they have a problem.
Dealing with conflict
On occasion, conflict will arise in your program between volunteers, between volunteers and staff and between volunteers and the organisation. It is essential that you address this as soon as it comes to your attention, ensuring you are even-handed in your dealing with the issues.
At times disciplining a volunteer is necessary for the protection of the rights of stakeholders of the organisation or program. It is essential that disciplinary procedures are transparent and maintain social justice for those involved.
The aim of a discipline procedure should be to ensure that the standards of performance and behaviour of the organisation are maintained. A discipline process should:
- Be part of the volunteer program procedures which are clearly communicated to volunteers at intake
- Be used with consistency across the organisation
- Not negate the need for supervision and feedback. Providing volunteers with adequate supervision and feedback on their performance is the best way of ensuring a disciplinary procedure will not need to be enacted. If discipline is required, it should follow attempts to rectify the situation, followed by feedback that a discipline process will need to be initiated if behaviour or performance does not change
- Be timely – implement a discipline process as soon as possible after the incident
- Focus on restoring performance or behaviour required by the organisation (should not focus on the person)
- Retain respect for the individual, without denying the seriousness of the situation or losing control of the process
- Approach the issue in a calm and objective manner stating the problem clearly and allowing the volunteer to explain the situation from their point of view
- Explore alternatives
- Develop an agreed plan of action and clarify how that will be implemented
- Explain the consequences, should subsequent disciplinary action be required, relating to the same matter
Always abide by the ethics of Equal Employment Opportunity legislation when terminating volunteers. Similar systems for managing employees and volunteers are appropriate.