By Maria Walters, Guest Contributor
Running an organization or event that relies solely on volunteers can be challenging. While volunteers invariably mean well and want to help, when their primary motivation is supporting the cause you’re working with (that is, they are not getting reimbursed), jobs, families, and the other priorities can sometimes get in the way. But it’s not impossible to be successful with a group of volunteers. Here are a few guidelines that I have found useful:
1. Don’t leave your decisions up to a committee. When embarking on a new project, coordinators often want to solicit input from a larger group to make sure everyone is happy and gets what they want. Although it’s very important to gather feedback and have clear goals, it is impossible to please everyone. In fact, organizers may find themselves crippled waiting for input from the larger group and wasting time instead of making progress. Gather feedback, but don’t hold up your plans waiting for everyone to give their opinions.
2. Have a plan and stick to it. It’s important to do your detailed planning ahead of time. Make sure you understand your goals and come up with a plan and timelines up front so you understand the scope of the project. Build some padding into your timeline as well, since nothing ever goes exactly the way you expect!
3. When you ask for help, be specific. Often, a volunteer coordinator will solicit help by sending an email out to a large group saying, “Hey! I need help with this project! Who can help?” This tactic may sometimes work; however, it is always better to provide specifics so that people can understand exactly what you need. Break out your project into specific tasks and THEN send out your email: “I need someone to spend a few hours updating the website, someone to help make a few phone calls to research venues, and someone to help me manage our budget over the course of the project.” Providing details like this and timeframes will help volunteers understand the level of commitment and also whet the interest of the volunteers based on the types of activities they are interested in doing.
4. Understand your volunteers and their strengths and weaknesses. This takes time, but it’s worth the effort to spend some time understanding what your volunteers are interested in doing within the organization. Learn what your team members do for a living, where their interests and talents lie, and how they want to contribute to the organization. You are also much more likely to get a positive response if you ask an individual to help with a specific task—especially if it’s a task for which they have training, experience, or interest. It appeals to them at a personal level by making them feel like they are needed and have an important role in the organization.
5. Expect to be let down once in a while. Unfortunately, life does get in the way. People get busy, they forget, they run into crises or other priorities that mean they can’t do what they say they will. Try to plan for this—have a backup plan if possible. Check in with them periodically instead of just hoping for something to appear at the deadline. Make it clear to your team that you understand if something comes up, but to please they tell you as soon as possible because it will help you make alternative plans.
Volunteer coordination can be fulfilling work, but remember that you are probably the only one with the high-level view. You can see how each piece fits into the larger picture, even if it might seem mundane to the volunteer doing it. It’s up to you to keep them motivated and appreciated, but also to provide backup if something goes wrong.