How to manage volunteers in difficult economic times

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A US study conducted by The Independent Sector, a US-based not-for-profit organization, confirms that when people are worried about their personal economic situation, overall giving and volunteering drops. Their facts suggest that giving drops by more than 50% and volunteering by close to 50%. So how are we going to manage volunteers in what many are describing as difficult economic times?

Follow your volunteer management cycle

Volunteer Canada offers advice on how to build a solid foundation for supporting your volunteer program by following the volunteer management cycle:

Volunteer Cycle

Begin with the recruitment stage. Be creative. Identify who would be your ideal volunteers (based on criteria such as skill sets, connections, reputation, etc.). Then determine how best to approach/reach them, for example, staff approach or peer contact. What recruitment message should be used? We know that time (or lack of it) is the most common barrier to volunteering, especially when people are worried about their finances. Write a list of key messages to use to respond to predictable objections. Here are some examples:

Objection: I don't have time to volunteer.
Response: We would appreciate even a brief contribution from you. What small contribution do you think you could manage? For example, could you…

Objection: I don't have time to chair the committee.
Response: If we found a co-chair that could provide the time-consuming work support, could we count on your leadership to chair the meetings?

Objection: I don't have a travel budget to attend the meetings.
Response: Could you participate by teleconference?

Objection: I can't do volunteer work during business hours, and my family needs me in the evenings.
Response: Could you contribute one hour on weekends to draft or evaluate?

The idea is to find a small way for the volunteer you want to be able to contribute, and build from there.

Review your volunteer policies

If your organization does not cover volunteer expenses, and now expenses are a barrier, review the cost/benefit of covering at least some volunteer expenses. Are there other volunteer policies that have become barriers in difficult economic times - how can they be amended?

Review your meeting formats

Could you replace in-person meetings with teleconferences? A cost/benefit analysis factoring the cost impact to volunteers (not just your organization) could provide rationale for changing your meeting format. Use dedicated web storage programs to post documents, and use e-mail exchange formats to invite feedback on documents that might traditionally be reviewed at an in-person meeting or teleconference.

Virtual volunteerism promises remedy to volunteer decline

Digital Journal, a nationally published magazine, stated, "With the explosion of the online population, virtual volunteerism offers a promising remedy to the decline of volunteers in the real world." It allows not-for-profit organizations to access the skills of very talented people anywhere in the world. This includes having Internet-based volunteers play a key role in the success of special events. You could hold a series of special events digitally managed by virtual volunteers. Digital presentations, as opposed to physical exhibits and presentations, are easy to display and distribute via a number of mediums, from the web to DVDs, according to Winnipeg's Macdonald Youth Services, who have run very success digital events.

Back to the volunteer management cycle.

Revise the way you offer volunteer orientation and training

Volunteers need to have relevant, general information about your organization and specific information about their roles and responsibilities. Orientation and training help your volunteers feel confident and prepared, and can mitigate problems because they know what is expected.

As was the case in revising meeting formats, an information-rich Power Point orientation tool that a volunteer can review at the best time for him/her can ease the pressure of the business climate. A buddy system where a volunteer has the name and phone number of a fellow volunteer to call with questions is also affordable and effective. Written job descriptions with examples are always affordable tools.

Approach supervision and evaluation in a cost-effective way

If you are using virtual versus physical meetings, it makes sense to supervise and evaluate virtually. A regular "check in" e-mail from the chair is time and cost effective; so too is a phone call (the new "black"). Positive feedback and encouragement of volunteers is motivating and a key component of volunteer retention.

Evaluation can be conducted by using online surveys that are very affordable through tools such as SurveyMonkey, Zoomerang and others. The emphasis of your evaluation surveys should be on the degree of volunteer satisfaction and positive volunteer experience. It should extract information on what support is needed.

Cost-effective recognition

Being recognized in front of peers is a compelling experience for all volunteers, including those who aspire to earn such recognition. If you need to cut costs for in-person events, remember you have access to the same group via your virtual community.

You can post photos, certificates, an honour roll on your website, or if that is too expensive, send out the same information in an e-blast. Remember that it is extremely important to describe what the volunteer contributed that deserves your organization's thanks and recognition; do not assume readers know what was done.

Map your new volunteer management program plan now

Take the time to sit down and map out your volunteer management critical path; strategic mapping is a popular management tool that you may want to introduce to make the exercise fun. The discipline of a plan increases your chances of success; it follows parallel principles of volunteer management: planning, activity, evaluation and celebration.

The moral of this article is do not allow economic pressure to defeat you. Get creative and use cost-effective technology. Keep the human touch too - make those phone calls and write those personal notes.

Paulette in President of Solution Studio Inc., a consulting practice that serves the not-for-profit association community. Paulette co-authored two manuscripts on risk management & not-for-profit organizations and regularly conducts risk management, strategic planning and board development workshops. She can be reached at 1-877-787-7714 or

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