Reject a Volunteer, Gain an Advocate [Part Two]

Guest post by Meridian Swift. This post originally appeared on Volunteer Plain Talk.

Click here to read Part One of this two-part series.

A lot of well-intentioned people advise volunteer managers to treat “hiring” volunteers in the same manner staff is hired. It’s not that simple, and Part One of this two-part series explored why. In case you missed it, here’s that list again:

  1. Unlike staff, we don’t have a limit on the number of volunteers we can accept, so it becomes much harder to turn away a volunteer (because volunteers are viewed as “free help” and the more, the merrier!)
  2. Qualifications for volunteers are viewed as much simpler and broader than for paid staff (meaning there’s a much wider base of volunteers and, well, all people want to volunteer, right?)
  3. There’s this perception surrounding volunteering that anyone who offers their time is already fit for the job, which is the complete opposite of the perceptions of staff hiring (warm body theory…)
  4. Unpaid work is viewed as simple, easy and can be done by anyone (lukewarm body theory…and the “they can’t hurt anything because they’re not doing anything impactful” theory)

Let me add another big one to the list: managing human capital. Let’s say there’s an open, full-time paid position for an IT person at Organization X. HR interviews candidates and offers the job to an experienced IT person who onboards.

Now let’s say Organization X needs a volunteer to man the reception desk 20 hours per week. The volunteer manager will interview candidates but that’s where the similarities end. To fill that position, the volunteer manager must “hire” multiple part-time volunteers along with back-ups for the days volunteers are absent. A volunteer manager’s process is exponentially more complex and fluid and requires a much larger amount of human capital to fill a position involving fewer hours worked.

Another difference lies in retention anchors. HR has salary, benefits, upward mobility and positive recommendations that hold the IT person in place. Volunteer managers rely on volunteer engagement. We have vastly different, much more time-consuming work involved in keeping a volunteer (and don’t get me started on the work needed to keep a volunteer at an organization who does not require everyone to engage volunteers).

In mathematical equations it looks like this:

1 employee x 4 variables = success!
1 volunteer x 17,892 variables + vol mgr coaching ÷ meaningful job ≥ staying at home watching “Dancing with the Stars.”

It’s no wonder volunteer managers have a hard time saying no to a volunteer beyond the niceness quotient. We have a more labor intensive recruitment and retention process, and every volunteer we turn away means losing those hours we’ve spent recruiting them.

It’s not a surprise when volunteer managers backpedal and put in a “warm body,” especially when hounded by comments like “I guess you don’t think we need more volunteers or you’d be out recruiting them.”

But we must find the best people for each volunteer role. This doesn’t mean we have to reject potential volunteers from our organizations. And it doesn’t mean all those recruitment hours should go to waste. Instead, we can first classify every potential volunteer as advocates by structuring our recruitment to lay out advocacy and expectations from the start.

Messaging that says, “We need you and everybody else in the world,” sets us up for failure when we actually don’t need that guy who sneaks a shot of bourbon during breaks in training.

Begin at the very beginning. Start by introducing service to your organization as, “We need more advocates for our mission.” Volunteering for our organizations, as we are told by volunteers, is a privilege. Set up the expectation that volunteers are elevated advocates. Make orientation and open houses about advocacy. Welcome the attendees and tell them what actions they can do to help. Give them an advocacy sheet outlining your mission, your work and verbiage to use when advocating. Equip them with pamphlets to pass out. Show them your interactive website.

Introduce volunteering and donating as forms of elevated advocacy or the next step. Explain that potential volunteers will go through an interview and background check process. Show examples of volunteer roles but stress required qualifications and skills. Introduce your policies and procedures and impress upon the advocates your commitment to providing mission value. Make volunteering for your organization a coveted position, one that advocates will want to aspire to instead of expecting to be automatically accepted because “Hey, you need someone, right?”

Capture each new advocate’s email and keep them in the loop with email blasts, updates on mission work, new initiatives, etc. Encourage them to send in their advocacy hours — anything they’ve done to further the mission by speaking to friends, leaving pamphlets at clubhouses or businesses, etc. Most likely, you can’t record that time as volunteer hours because these advocates aren’t officially volunteers, but so what? Record them on a separate spreadsheet and share them with the advocates in an email.

Design a report that shows all the advocate relationships and their hours. This report highlights two important but seldom understood volunteer management accomplishments:

  1. Time spent schmoozing with people isn’t just “having fun” — it serves a purpose
  2. Relationships forged in volunteer services extend mission outreach and awareness

Invite advocates to events and, if your organization is on board with having them work the event, then invite them to participate in a small way. Label episodic groups as “group advocates” because a goal with one-time and corporate groups is to create partnerships with folks who will ultimately advocate for us once they’ve completed a volunteer assignment.

Let’s say an advocate interviews for a volunteer position, and you deem them not a good fit for the role. Tell them that this particular position is not right for their skills or talents. It’s more palatable to be told that you aren’t right for a position than to feel like an organization is rejecting you altogether. It’s subtle but less harsh.

Tell the person you appreciate their advocacy and their willingness to help (because it’s the truth). Making advocacy about action is giving people a way to be involved versus telling them “No, you can’t volunteer,” and then shutting the door.

Let them apply again for another position. The point is, we create relationships with people beyond filling a task. Let that work for you. Ask advocates to recruit more advocates (and potential volunteers). The message then becomes, “We appreciate your willingness to help. There are many ways to help, including but not limited to volunteering.” It’s inclusion versus an all or nothing approach.

Reach out to other agencies who are looking for volunteers and see if there are opportunities open, as I suggested in this post from last year: Innovation and Sustainable Volunteering.

Clearly, this isn’t meant for the potential volunteer who is destructive or wildly inappropriate. It’s for those potential volunteers who are on the cusp. Forging a relationship with them as advocates doesn’t slam the door in their face and, who knows, they may eventually become volunteers or bring in volunteers, donors or more advocates.

We volunteer managers don’t have to accept that we have an all or nothing approach. When faced with challenges, we find ways to overcome them. Volunteering is about action. Advocacy is also about action. Creating an advocacy role that uplifts volunteering to an elevated form increases mission awareness and reach. It also gives us more control over volunteer engagement and assignments.

And heck, I’ll admit it: I know I have to, but I just hate to turn people away.

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