How do non-profits hold volunteers accountable?
January 6, 2009 5:50 AM   Subscribe

How do non-profits hold volunteers accountable?

I'm involved in a non-profit (environmental NGO) with a significant contingent of volunteers. (I'm a volunteer myself.) All of the volunteers make commitments in terms of tasks and hours that they are going to work; some keep their commitments and some don't. Those that do (including me!) end up either having to take on the undone work, often at short notice, or picking up the pieces after something has been dropped halfway through.

I'm sure this sort of thing happens all the time in other organisations. What experiences do others have of holding volunteers accountable for putting in the time and the effort that they've promised? In particular, does anyone have experience in "non-hierarchical" organisations, which we are supposed to be? (This is perhaps our biggest problem: the lack of bosses leads to a lack of structure.)
posted by Grinder to Human Relations (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I would say that new volunteers should probably be given very small workloads (e.g. one simple task the moment they sign up) and the amount they can take on increased as they prove successful at getting stuff done.

Is there a dedicated volunteer co-ordinator? This role is pretty key to making stuff like this work. Not a "boss" but someone who keeps track of things and makes sure communication is flowing (e.g. right off the bat, you can probably find out earlier than you are now when someone's not going to complete their assignment).
posted by winston at 5:56 AM on January 6, 2009

Seconding small workloads. If you feel like you can, why not become a Volunteer Manager. You may or may not find pay for it, but you can start grouping volunteers around their best skill areas and team them. Individual volunteers can begin to goof-off fairly quickly. If you set up a team system with some rotation in the mix to keep things interesting, this would work better.
posted by parmanparman at 6:30 AM on January 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for those tips. We have tried a co-ordinator, but the role either turns into a "boss" or is perceived as a "boss", and is therefore resisted. I'm curious to know if anyone has figured out a way to successfully manage people without having someone "in charge"?
posted by Grinder at 6:35 AM on January 6, 2009

Is there a dedicated volunteer co-ordinator?

This. It can be a paid or a volunteer position, but this is one of those things where unless it's someone's job it's no one's job.

It takes a pretty significant investment in time and energy to track everyone's hours, responsibilities, and accomplishments. But without doing that, not only are the freeloaders allowed to continue to do nothing, but the hard workers burn out and disappear because they feel unrecognized for the work they are doing.

In particular, does anyone have experience in "non-hierarchical" organisations, which we are supposed to be?

Non-hierarchical is mostly ok (giving up some efficiency for equity), as long as your volunteer coordinator is willing to use all the powers at his/her disposal. Shame, pride, and other basic emotions are powerful motivators; something as simple as posting people's commitments and accomplishments on a big white board can change the "should I show up today or not?" calculus for a lot of people.
posted by Forktine at 6:37 AM on January 6, 2009

You could try rotating the "co-ordinator" role among some of the long standing volunteers.

Creating better communication amongst the volunteers can create more peer pressure, more commitment, more incidental reminders to do the job, and more opportunities for volunteers to ask questions that they are slightly embarrassed about having to ask, but that are crucial to getting the job done properly. So (if applicable) you could try organising social events for the volunteers or trips to places that are relevant to the job.

Communicating publically about how you personally are doing with your workload, the problems you are having and the solutions you have found may make other people more inclined to chime in.

Keep track of the volunteers that don't pull their weight and politely tell them that it's understandable that they have other commitments and you won't be assigning them more work unless they let you know they are able to do it.
posted by emilyw at 6:55 AM on January 6, 2009

As has been said already, you need a volunteer coordinator. My wife held this position for a wildlife n/p. She used to continually assess who was capable of what and schedule their workload accordingly. Those who made it onto the "unreliable" list were given three months to clean up their act or told that they were much appreciated but bye-bye. Unreliable volunteers are worse than if they were not there.
posted by Umhlangan at 9:30 AM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've found that matching the volunteer's motivation for donating their time to the demands of the particular position is really important. Some people volunteer because they're lonely; don't give them a job that works in solitude, for instance. Someone who wants to develop skills to put on a resume may have a totally different focus. Spending effort to meet the volunteer's needs while you fulfill the needs of the organization will really pay off in the long run.

As mentioned in other posts, this really can only be accomplished by a volunteer coordinator of some type. If the coordinator position is designed as a facilitator/troubleshooter to assist the volunteers to get what they really want out of their respective positions as well as to meet the needs of the organization, they'll be much more likely to be accepted by the current volunteers. Expect resistance from some of the volunteers who escape responsibility under the current rules; you'll probably lose them as a result of this process, but that's not a bad thing. You'll attract other new volunteers who will appreciate the structure and not being subjected to having to continually pick up the ball from those not completing their end of their agreement.

A volunteer manager will find their job much easier if they create "position descriptions" for every volunteer role early on, and include descriptions of "Works mostly with other people", "requires excellent writing skills", "works alone" and so on. Use the current volunteers to help develop the job description for their own position. Since you see the value of the coordinator position and believe in the organization, you're a good candidate for the job. Good luck!
posted by northernlightgardener at 10:10 AM on January 6, 2009

At a non-profit I worked for we tackled this problem with a combination of the things mentioned above and a couple of additional things. We had a dedicated volunteer co-ordinator (this was combined with a fund raising role, wit the understanding the first thing they would seek would be funding for their own job), this person then created job descriptions for the various volunteer roles. We then created a policy of interviewing volunteers for these roles — this enabled us to find out what people wanted from volunteering, what commitment they could give etc. It also enabled us to reject people who we didn't think were suitable. It's a common mistake you feel you have to take on people because they are willing to volunteer. This had created problems for the organization in the past, in particular with the demands of people's mental health issues we weren't equipped to deal with. The interview process was good for getting people to come up with a realistic view of their commitment, and whether it would fit in with our needs, and to reinforce this we would get people to sign a volunteer contract to back this up and to give them a clear idea of the responsibilities of their role, as well as what they could expect from us.

The particular problems of non-hierarchical groups have been much discussed (see the classic text form the early feminist movement The Tyranny of Structurelessness for starters) but there are no easy answers. Suffice it to say that the problems of a lack of structure and of the divisions that can arise from this reoccur often. There are no easy answers, and a variety of opinions, of which I definitely fall on one side, though I'm still a firm believer in working non-hierarchically. I don't believe it always has to come at the cost of efficiency, though it requires more work to achieve it, perhaps slightly more controversially I also believe leadership is not incompatible with it, and sometimes necessary. I have a lot of ideas (and experience) wit this but I don't want to go at too great a length at the moment (I am happy to follow up if you want though) but I will make a number of brief points.

A lack of hierarchy does NOT mean a lack of structure, in fact the groups that work best are often those that have plenty of it.

Often the answer is more democracy, not less, but more vigorously applied (hence the need for structure). People need to feel the communication channels are open and that they have an ownership stake in the project. This way they will feel like the group is accountable to them and they are accountable to the group.

You need to have a clear decision making process that ends with a set of clearly defined and understood actions points. For each of these you need an individual, or group of individuals. that take ownership of them and responsibility for carrying them out. They also need to know they will report this back to the group where they can be held to them.
posted by tallus at 12:14 PM on January 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure how your volunteer organization is structured, but at mine, each project has a leader. The leader is usually themselves a volunteer. In order to be a leader, you must have been a regular volunteer for some minimum period of time (and proved to be responsible). Anyone who meets the requirements can sign up. The leader role usually rotates from week to week, which I think mitigates the "boss" feeling, since the leader was probably just another regular volunteer the week before. There is of course, a head volunteer coordinator who is mainly administrative. A week may be too short a time for you, maybe a month would work better?

We worried that no one would sign up to be leader, but people really liked stepping up to do more especially since it was only for a short time. They each thought they had something to bring to the role that could improve things. It's a good way to learn from each other.

But like everyone here says, each project usually has a clear spec of some sort written by the coordinator very much in advance (the tasks are usually the same throughout the year -- so these are not rewritten often). That way, it's easy to lead and assign tasks to the volunteers.

Good luck.
posted by bluefly at 12:59 PM on January 6, 2009

We have a fairly extensive interview process. That barrier to entry seems to help us. People still drop out if the experience is not going well for them (usually our fault in those cases), but otherwise they do seem to fulfill their commitment.
posted by salvia at 11:10 PM on January 6, 2009

Best answer: Sorry, I'm a bit late to this party. I'm a volunteer development officer for a large, national charity. We have a hierarchy (of sorts) and the buck stops with staff, but even with that we have volunteers who still cause difficulties who we just haven't/can't/won't get rid off. I have also worked and volunteered for all maner of different organisations including
no-hierarchy ones. It's a problem for organisations of all stripes.

A lot of what I've got to say if general volunteering good practice, so it might not apply to you and your set up. I'm not particularly clear if your problem is people disappearing from the face of the earth never to be seen again, or current volunteers turning up but not doing enough, or a mixture of both. If you want to contact me, and talk it through some more, my email's in my profile.

Sorry to be a worrywart, but if you are in the UK, (I get the feeling you might be, but also for anyone else who stumbles across the question) you need to be careful that anything you do to make sure that anything you do encourage accountability doesn't mean you inadvertently create a contract of employment with a volunteer, which would give them employment rights. Volunteers have taken the organisations they volunteer with to employment tribunals in the past. So use task or role description rather than job description or contract; volunteer coordinator or development officer rather than manager. The last volunteer management training course I was on, we were even advised not to get volunteers to sign a role description. You need to also make sure that any perks or benefits you give them couldn't been seen as payment, and that any expenses you pay only cover genuine expenses. There's more information, advice and good practice on Volunteering England's web page.

Your organisation needs to work out why people don't keep their commitments, and see what it can do to change that. There might not be one reason, but there might be some changes that can be made to reduce it happening.

There are lots of volunteer management models, but most of them have an underlying structure for the volunteer which looks something like this:

Recruitment - Induction - Action (with ongoing support and review) - Ending (with evaluation and moving on)

When you are recruiting volunteers, do you give them a realistic idea of what's going to be expected of them? I know it's really tempting to play down the commitment involved, but I've lost the most people when I've done this. People will sign up for big commitments, but you will loose people if you tell them 'it's just a couple of hours a month', when in reality it's a couple of hours a week and they have to become a trustee. And often those people will just disappear without a trace because no one likes giving bad news, and they don't want to let you down.

How flexible is your volunteering? Are people able to fit easily into their lives? If it isn't that flexible, are there ways you can make it more flexible, or introduce ways of getting involved that don't require quite so much commitment? (I've no idea what your organisation does, but some general ideas are: one-off events, holding sessions at different times of the week and at different times of day, volunteering once a month or once a fortnight rather than once a week, volunteering remotely).

Induction is really important, anything you read about good volunteer management always highlights induction. When people start, how do you show them what they have to do? Do you sit down with them on their first day and agree what they are going to do, and when? Do they get training? Do they get introduced to the other volunteers? Do they get a buddy? Do they get told what to do if they have a problem? Do you give them a trial period, and then at the end of it make sure that they are happy? How clique-y are the existing volunteers?

The ongoing support and review is often over looked, but you need to make sure that volunteers are still happy doing the things they are doing, and if they aren't, work out ways to solve that. Some people will happily spend decades turning up once a week to do the same thing, others want to change and to develop, others want praise and thanks and recognition for what they do, other people couldn't care less. You need to please them all. You also need to take into account that people's situations change, and they might not be able to carry on volunteering in the same way. Again, people don't like giving bad news, so they disappear rather than saying anything, or it's only a volunteer role so it doesn't matter really (good recruitment and induction will stop that because people will have better expectations).

Finally, you need to think about what happens when people move on. This might be to another role in your organisation, or they might leave completely. You don't want people to feel trapped, let people know it's ok to leave, or to ask about doing something else instead. Is there any form of evaluation or follow up when people leave, so you can find out how they found volunteering with you?

I've got a few specific ideas of things you could try to improve things, without creating a hierarchy. How do you currently make decisions? Rather than having one volunteer coordinator, a volunteer support committee might work better.

If your problem is people leaving you in the lurch, telling people to if possible give a xxx week notice period if they are leaving, so you can plan your work around them or find a replacement for them. It's better to know that someone's leaving than it it to turn up to lay hedges 9am on Sunday morning in the pouring rain to find you're the only one there (been there, done that).

If you have current volunteers who still turn up, but don't do what's expected, are you asking too much? Can you find them something else to do? Can you spread the work out so it's more manageable (maybe you need more volunteers? That's a whole other askme...)

I feel I have rambled a bit, but please, email me, I'll ramble some more, but I can probably give you some more specific advice, and point you towards some useful resources.
posted by Helga-woo at 10:22 AM on January 10, 2009

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