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Don’t let your “volunteer knowledge” walk away

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Knowledge loss is inevitable when a volunteer leaves your organization – and when somebody has been in a volunteer role for a long time, they can take a lot of knowledge with them. Not just the outlined tasks and responsibilities of the position but the little tips and tricks they did behind the scenes that nobody may have even known about. It can take a very long time before a new person is able to fully come on board and learn all the ins and outs of their predecessors’ position. This can be especially daunting for you if your volunteer is in a leadership capacity.

There are several steps you can take to help ease your anxiety about losing your volunteers who hold these leadership roles. You just need to be prepared.

Have two people in same position

If you can have two people that work together, it can help ease the strain if one person leaves on short notice. They can also spell each other off during absences with the added benefit that another person knows the job duties if something unexpected were to happen. This isn’t possible in every volunteer role, but even having somebody that has some basic understanding of the role will help. Ideally, if you have the two volunteers working at the same time, the second volunteer can see and get the feel of what the volunteer in the leadership role does.

Knowledge base software

Have you ever considered knowledge base software? These web-based software programs can provide a method for you to have a very thorough job description for each leadership role. Many organizations use these software programs for their staff so that in the event of a resignation or termination they can have a step-by-step job description for a new person to follow. With a good foundation in this area, you may find you sleep better at night, not having to worry about the “what-ifs”.

Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start with one or two positions at a time. It is definitely worth the effort because you can create more strategic onboarding, make better decisions and identify where your organization is vulnerable.

Overlap of old to new volunteer

Not all instances will provide you with time to do this, but if you do receive enough notice you can ask the volunteer to stay on until a replacement is found. Many times volunteers will do this as they are not only loyal to the leadership role but also to the organization itself. They generally would not want to see the organization fail because of their exit and would do whatever they could to help with the transition. Volunteers are generally very supportive of sharing information to help their successor succeed in the role.

When there is no overlap it is hard to keep doing things the way it was done under the previous volunteer. Sometimes this can be very challenging for those left to carry on. Other times it can bring fresh ideas to an organization. In any case, albeit there are always challenges, as the past volunteer will have taken a lot of knowledge with them that could take weeks, months or even years for the new volunteer to acquire.

Exit interview

If you have the luxury of knowing that a volunteer is leaving and can conduct an exit interview with them, you would be wise to do so. Give them time to prepare for this interview by sharing the questions you will ask. This will give you the best answers rather than catching them off guard.

Ask them questions such as:

  1. What three things have you learned that you wished you had have known when you started in this position?
  2. What are the three most difficult problems you face regularly?
  3. What do you think is the biggest challenge your replacement will face?
  4. What are the two things you are most proud of that you have accomplished in your volunteer role?

This final question is important to include because what you may have thought of as a great accomplishment may not be the same as what the volunteer feels they have accomplished. It may open your eyes to new tasks you may not have thought were vital.

Contingency plan for all leadership roles

A contingency plan for all leadership roles is important for both the organization and the volunteers. Volunteers want their legacy to live on and not see their accomplishments diminish because others were not informed how to do the job. Pair up volunteers so that they can see what each role encompasses. Having a back-up person available for each role would also allow a volunteer to be able to take time off when needed without feeling their tasks would not be accomplished when absent.

There are three types of knowledge. Understanding the different forms of knowledge can help you when trying to figure out the best processes for you and keeping that knowledge within your organization.

Explicit – Things are usually documented, branded and formal procedures available.
Implicit – These items are not usually written down, more of a rule of thumb type knowledge.
Tacit – This is usually deep smarts and the know-how of experts. It is difficult to transfer to another person verbally or in writing it down. It can also be based on personal experience or “street smarts” if you will.

Anticipating the succession of knowledge is vital. Make the implicit, explicit. How can you do this?

  • List the steps to complete the task
  • What resources or tools do you use and how are they assessed?
  • Has it always been done this way? If not, should we keep doing it this way?
  • When making decisions relating to this task, what factors do you consider?
  • What is your ideal outcome when doing this task?

Don’t let your “Volunteer Knowledge” walk away. Prepare for the unexpected and you will be successful in keeping a great volunteer team viable. This advance planning will not only help you, but it will make the volunteers that are left to carry on feel more at ease when somebody leaves the organization.

Kim McFaul is the Volunteer Coordinator for Grey Bruce Health Services serving Owen Sound, Markdale, Meaford, Lion’s Head, Wiarton and Southampton. To inquire about volunteer opportunities click here.

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