Involving clients in your volunteer program: Best practices

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When homeless guests enter the Mustard Seed in Calgary Alberta, they receive more than coffee, a bagged lunch or a shaving kit. They receive a warm welcome from staff and from a volunteer who truly "gets" their situation. Like the guest, that volunteer has likely slept in the street that night.

"Connecting with someone you know has lived your life is a gift," says Deb Runnalls, street level manager at the Mustard Seed. "It tears down barriers and builds a natural trust. People realize they're valuable and welcomed here."

As well as providing food and shelter, the Mustard Seed offers programs such as music and sports. "Activities are guest (client) driven," says Runnalls. "People are less suspicious and more engaged in activities led by someone who is still living in their situation."

Like the Mustard Seed, many nonprofits serving vulnerable or marginalized people welcome clients as volunteers. At Winnipeg Harvest, client volunteers help package and give out food. "Most people don't always want to feel at the receiving end of services," says volunteer services staff Meghan Pesclovitch."They may not have money to donate. But they can give time."

While donating time, clients become part of a community. Pesclovitch points out that some of their clients have little support, in terms of friends and family. She says volunteering gives them an opportunity to build relationships and a sense of stability.

Community volunteers at large — those who have never had to avail themselves of the service provided by the nonprofit or charity — also change from the experience. "When volunteers work shoulder to shoulder with clients, they see a human face on issues,"says Pesclovitch."They drop whatever preconceived notions they have about poverty and hunger."

This particular subset of volunteers also helps to promote an organization's work. "They can be your best ambassadors," says Miriam Leslie, program and volunteer coordinator at The Salvation Army Vancouver Community and Family Services. "They can really give your organization's message because they've experienced it first-hand."

While there are benefits to nonprofits making use of volunteers who are also beneficiaries of the services provided, there are challenges as well. Leslie describes someone who didn't work out. "He was an excellent cleaner, but couldn't take direction well. He'd put his bare hands into the garbage so he could feed the birds. He has a wonderful heart, but it wasn't a good example for patrons. How do you ask someone to change a lifetime of how they've been?"

Of course, there can be idiosyncrasies and situations that don't work out with just about any volunteer.

Leslie, who works not only as volunteer manager but also as a program coordinator, wonders how she can set up client volunteers for success when she has so little time.

Making it work

We talked to nonprofits successfully involving client volunteers for their advice. Here are their strategies for success:

1. Quickly screen and train drop-in volunteers

For community volunteers, nonprofits use the usual screening measures such as criminal reference checks and references. But the application process may need to be different for volunteers who are also clients and may be homeless, for example. At the Mustard Seed, any guest from the street can drop in and ask to volunteer. After filling out a basic form, guests read an abbreviated volunteer manual with staff and sign agreement to rules and safety polices. Included are universal precautions such as using gloves to protect against HIV or hepatitis. It’s important to implement those precautions immediately, says Runnalls.

2. Separate their needs as a volunteer and as a client

Pesclovitch estimates that 50 to 60% of Winnipeg Harvest volunteers are also food bank clients. Sometimes a client volunteer feels they're entitled to more food because of their contributions. "It's challenging because once you've made a personal connection with someone, you want to give them as much as you can," she says. "But there are thousands of additional clients in Manitoba who can't volunteer here. It has to be fair and separate."

To support client volunteers without providing extra privileges, Peslovitch frequently checks in with them and refers them to other agencies (such as mental health or housing) when needed.

3. Explain non-negotiable rules

At Winnipeg Harvest, theft, breaking safety rules, being disrespectful and threatening or bullying are not allowed. If a person is caught stealing food, they are suspended from volunteering for a month or two. "It's a tough moral choice," says Pesclovitch. "A volunteer may have taken food to provide for a child at home rather than asking for help."

At Sage House, a Winnipeg health, outreach and resource centre for street-involved women, client volunteers are required to be "safe, respectful and not intoxicated while wearing their volunteer badge," says Kristi Havens, volunteer coordinator at Mount Carmel Clinic (which operates Sage House). Otherwise, they are asked to remove their badge. Volunteers are also asked to watch their language. "But be aware that acceptable language varies," says Havens. "If someone is using the 'f-bomb' it could be part of their everyday language. We'll say something if it happens a lot. We want to keep it a safe place."

4. Set them up for success

Volunteers with addictions often need accommodations. "If they arrive intoxicated, we ask them to come back the next day," says Runnals. "They can't get rid of their addiction just because they want to volunteer. We don't want them to fail."

At Winnipeg Harvest, accommodations are also crucial. "We try and build trust. We're honest about where we can be flexible and where we don't compromise," says Pesclovitch. So if a volunteer requested cigarette breaks every twenty minutes, they'd problem solve together. "I'd ask how they were going to improve this and how they'd make it work for us," she says. But if nothing changed over time, the volunteer would be let go.

5. Communicate and recognize effort

Leslie of the Salvation Army meets with volunteers periodically to ask about job satisfaction and about their ideas for improving the program. For long-term volunteers, she asks them how they got involved there, so their story "doesn't get lost along the way."

At Winnipeg Harvest, they recognize volunteers for exceptional work. "We try and keep it fun," says Pesclovitch. Often at lunch, they give out a certificate for team member of the month.

6. Get buy-in from other volunteers

At The Mustard Seed, staff and volunteers together read a manual that explains the importance of client volunteers. "We start from a place of respect right from the beginning," says Runnals. "If staff read this secretly it would create a dynamic of power that we don't want."

To further build relationships, guest volunteers are encouraged to join training sessions (often at lunch) with other staff, says Runnalls. Outside agencies provide speakers on domestic violence, women and self-esteem, HIV, AIDS and other concerns.

Community volunteers separately receive training in how to work with the Mustard Seed's population, so they can reach a better understanding of their possible situations and know when to walk away and refer someone for help.

7. Minimize risk

To keep staff, guest volunteers and guests safe, the Mustard Seed:

  • Provides ongoing safety training. "Especially when people have brain damage or mental health issues, you should review safety and model it all the time," says Runnals. For example, nobody picks up garbage without gloves on.
  • Trains all staff in areas such as non-violent crisis intervention and cpr/first aid.
  • Has a strong relationship with the police. If a guest volunteer has a fine or warrant, the police won't arrest them onsite. "The police understand what we're trying to do here," says Runnalls. Instead, an officer will process the fine or give a court date to a client volunteer outside in a police car.
  • Always pairs staff and community volunteers with client volunteers at the front door. "If a guest volunteer has just come out of treatment, dealing with intoxicated people could trigger them," says Runnalls. At the door, guest volunteers greet and give out food, but never do direct treatment.

8. Offer meaningful volunteer opportunities

If a client volunteer has a criminal record, they are offered low-risk volunteer opportunities. At Sage House, such volunteers often work alongside staff doing cleaning and house maintenance.

While such jobs are important, Havens tries to increase opportunities that build confidence, job-skills and self-esteem. "Transitions need to be gradual," she says. Over time, Havens has included client volunteers at the health clinic. One volunteer helped maintain the clinic garden. There she gained confidence and a connection with administrative and maintenance staff.

9. Celebrate successes

Sometimes clients create their own transformative volunteer opportunities. At Sage House, client volunteers run the Anti-Violence Advisory Team (AVAT). As former sex-trade workers, they give reality based workshops and peer to peer support. AVAT workshops include topics such as nutrition and how to regain custody of their children. They also give school presentations to parents on topics such recognizing if a child is at risk of entering the sex-trade.

In other organizations, some client volunteers progress to paid employment. At the Mustard Seed, a former long-term volunteer now works as full time paid kitchen staff. Says Runnals, "I see people blossom, knowing they have skills that are transferable."

The bottom line

Not sure if your organization is ready for client volunteers? "Weigh the pros, cons, benefits, risks, and supports," says Havens. "There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Take a chance and ask another organization for advice."

"Start small and really know your population," advises Runnalls. "You have to walk with them through whatever has hit them. If someone slept under a bridge last night and comes to work with me, I have to understand what that will look like behaviourally. That way we can support them in the right way."

Freelance writer and speaker, Amy Baskin, M.Ed, regularly contributes to magazines including Today's Parent, More and Reader's Digest. She is co-author of "More Than a Mom — Living a Full and Balanced Life When Your Child Has Special Needs" (Woodbine House.) Amy has both professional and volunteer experience in the nonprofit sector. Contact her: or follow her on Twitter @AmyNBaskin.

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