Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How to Run a Volunteer Program

Volunteers are like full blown roses.  They arrive with energy and expectations (perhaps inaccurate), but expectations none the less, that their time donated to you is valuable.  They are somewhat overwhelming in their eagerness to help.  They may only last a short time in this full bloom of volunteering if they get bored or realize they are only doing something tedious.  Here are just a few basic rules that will keep your relationship with your volunteers running smoothly.

1) Have a consistent and clear schedule but be flexible because you are getting free help.  Pretend that you think their time is valuable even if they are old retired farts.

2) Provide a tour of the facility and make sure you introduce and re-introduce staff over time.  Us older folks cannot remember a name to save our life.

3) It might be a good idea to assign the volunteer to a specific staff person (and a back-up) so that they know who to go to when they get there each time.  It is not courteous to have them stand around grinning at people until they catch someone's eye.

4) Be cheerful and start a small conversation each time they arrive so that they feel welcome.  Don't act distracted even though you are busy, just two to three minutes of cheerful exchange should suffice.  Whatever you do, do not give them the deer in the headlights look when they show up and then look around for someone else to help.

5) Always have something for them to work on.  Try to fit the activity to their expertise and interests if at all possible.  Do not waste their time by going around to other staff asking if they have anything to give the volunteer to do.

6)  And the absolutely most important tip is if you do not need volunteers be honest about that.  Take their name and phone number and tell them you may call them in the future.  Do not feel guilty in turning them away.  Women are particularly bad about this!

The advantages of volunteering in a library is you get to see all the new stuff first, you get to peruse the collection when you read shelves and it is amazing what libraries have today.  You had forgotten, perhaps, that videos, CDs, DVDs, books, magazines, etc. are all for the checking and free!  You have access to dozens of libraries via the interlibrary loan system, so chances are you will be able to get anything you want if you are patient.

Needless to say, my decision to help out at the local library which I began to do this winter is not working out as well as I had hoped.  I encountered some of the issues I mentioned above.  I also overlooked the fact that most of my work would involve moving books and re-shelving books and reading shelves for misplaced or lost books and other media.  I told myself that this re-enforced my Dewey and alphabetical skills and strengthened my biceps and laterals.  I tried to remember some yoga stretches and moves when I got up off the floor after reading the lowest shelves with my trifocals tilted for an extended time .  I was somewhat limited in this yoga moves partnering as I did not want to scare the customers.  I also found it necessary to stifle my groans as I tried to get up with books in hand.  Most days I pretend that they really are happy to see me and a few of them are.  But I if I do not like this as much as I hoped I guess I will be looking for a new volunteer activity in the future.
As a post script when a volunteer leaves you might want to ask them a few questions such as: 1) Will they be volunteering elsewhere? 2) What did they like about this volunteer experience?  3)What didn't they like?  


  1. This is a great post! Good advice for those who "use" volunteers - and also a great self assessment on the personal rewards (or not) of giving your time without necessarily enjoying it!

  2. I say be a photograher and have a gallery on Etsy. :)

  3. As a librarian at an elementary school, I have to tell you volunteers like you are absolute angels! Your willingness to read the shelves, reshelve books, etc, frees me up to teach! Bless you!!

  4. It won't be long and I will join the ranks of retired-person-volunteers and I will be furious if those in charge don't follow your rules/suggestions. Print out your post and stick it on a bulletin board or wall that they will be certain to see. Please.

  5. What great advice! This would work for the first day on the job too. All except the turning away part. Ha!

  6. That is a real shame, Tabor. It must be frustrating. I would get lost, though - looking at the new stuff coming in. LOL!

  7. What a wonderful way to spend some time, Tabor and yes, make sure to stretch!

    You know, I've got a "don't" to add to that. I ended up finding a different food pantry to volunteer for when one that I first approached required that I provide four references. Yeah, you read that right. Four references, two personal, and two professional.

    As it happens, I haven't worked in the corporate world for over ten years. I've done some work since then, but the people I come in to contact with are clients, not coworkers.

    I explained this and was told, "Oh, it's okay if they are a little out-of-date, but that's what we need."

    I decided to find another organization to volunteer for -- one that wasn't going to require that I hit up people I haven't seen in a decade for a favor.

    I realize that their process was to try and make sure they didn't have anyone unscrupulous or dangerous in their midst, but I've had paying jobs that required fewer references.

    So the "don't"? Don't treat people as if they are likely criminals, trying to prey on people in need.

    I could have scared up the outdated references, but decided that the food pantry closer to home was as likely to need someone to sort food for them, without that.

    They did.

    I hope you greatly enjoy your experience, and thank you for doing that! There are a lot of organizations in need of help, some less glamorous than others. I love to hear about people who volunteer to help their communities.

  8. I had to laugh at the idea of suppressing the groans getting up from low shelves. Seriously, though, having worked in an institution that depends on volunteers (church) I realise how invaluable they are. Wouldn't be much good myself with books, the temptation to browse would be so hard to resist.

  9. Your tips about showing appreciation for the volunteers time is most important.

    I volunteered at a nursing home entertaining the lunch crowd with playing he piano for over an hour several times a week. I broke my finger and had to stop until it healed. The next time I had to tell them I needed time off the program director was so nasty I decided to quit. The organization has to remember that you are not in their employ.

  10. Great post, Tabor. I have not yet volunteered anywhere but I have been thinking about volunteering at the animal shelter. I appreaciate all your tips and I sincerely hope that if I volunteer somewhere, that I will be appreciated and not feel like an outsider or a lowly "Pee-On."

  11. Ah, the glory days of volunteering, or rather feeling proud to offer your services as a volunteer. Would you believe me if I say that I have given up all such activities?
    I am sure, as a volunteer I was as much a pain for them as the regular staff were towards me.

    One more rule, NEVER run a committee of any kind with volunteers. There will be no work done and everybody will be cross at the end for not having had their suggestion accepted.

  12. Very good post, Tabor. I worked for a large church in Texas (about 3400 members). Since I was working in Children's Ministries (we had two full Sunday School hours), I worked with tons of volunteers year after year. I would have about 500 different volunteers in various ministries during the course of a year. I guess I was a professional when it came to getting and keeping volunteers. I had a gift in that area --and really should have written a book for others in the same positions.

    Here are some of the things I know about volunteers:
    -Give them a job description so that they will know what they are getting into; AND --give them a beginning date and end date (so that they won't end up with a 'job' for eternity)..
    -Contact people and find out where their talents lie; If someone is better suited for clerical work, then don't put them in a teaching position.
    -Once you give them a job, let them do it (and you only be there for guidance and direction); Volunteers may not do things like you would --but that is OKAY. Accept that and affirm them. IF they feel as if they have done a good job, they'll come back again and volunteer for something else.

    Well--as you can tell, you hit an area of interest for me. I love your thoughts and totally agree with them.. People will help IF asked. Don't wait for them to volunteer; many won't. But--for the most part, people enjoy volunteering, when they are doing something where they can make a difference.

    Great post.

  13. Excellent advice, Betsy, thank you for posting.

  14. Glad you know what you want and don't. The library staff should read this!

  15. I have been a volunteer with the disabled since 1991. My group of ladies are all homemakers and we have an active programme going. We call ourselves The Sunshine Group. And over the years the bonding among ourselves has been very strong. Appreciation of every individual's efforts is important.
    Kudos to your volunteer effort!

  16. My wife's phrase is "I did my best. I'm just a volunteer, so I'm not going to kill myself, but I'll do my best, and I did."

  17. Wonderful Post. Absolutely Great Advice.


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