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Volunteers: Effective management

Patricia Sterling

Volunteers have formed the cornerstone of the development of welfare services in South Africa. Concerned people have, over the years, initiated and developed services to meet the needs of their communities, serving as committee members, fund-raisers, community workers, and have played a vital role in the provision of services in the non-governmental sector. The particular area of work which has been developing in recent years, and which I want to focus on in this paper, is that in which a volunteer assists paid staff in health, welfare and community services either by providing a direct service to clients, e.g. driving, friendly visits, or in support tasks, e.g. typing, selling etc.

Who is a volunteer
A volunteer is a person who commits time and energy for the benefit of society, the community and the environment, or individuals outside the immediate family. It is undertaken freely and by choice, for no financial gain.

It still seems to be a commonly held view that the typical volunteer is a middle aged, middle class married woman.

Although a large number of volunteers fall within this group, many young people and men are engaged in voluntary work. Volunteers should therefore not be seen as a homogenous group, but as individuals who can contribute a rich and diverse range of talents.

Volunteers are not getting a salary – why then do they continue working? Perhaps we need to look at what they expect to get from their work. Geraldine Aves found that volunteers gave as their motives for doing voluntary work.

Interestingly, what came to light in this study by Aves was the attraction of belonging to an organised, recognised organisation. What must be stressed above all is that the volunteer is hoping to find enjoyment and satisfaction in his or her work.

The value of the volunteer to an agency
There are many welfare organisations successfully using volunteers. However, reservations are held by many staff stemming from their experiences with volunteers. The most common criticisms arc that they are unreliable, demanding, lack initiative and take up a great deal of time of the paid staff. Those who have embarked on a definite planned programme for volunteers however found that some of the above difficulties disappear and the benefits which volunteers have brought to the organisations far outweigh any problems. The secret is a Planned Programme. If you are expecting volunteers to save you time or make less work for you and your staff you are going to be disappointed. The value of the volunteer does not lie in primarily relieving your paid staff of their load of work, but of expanding your services to your clients; services which your staff are unable to undertake. Along with expansion and extension of service comes costs to the agency; costs in terms of time and finance. A great deal of time is required to be given to planning, programming, recruiting and supervising the volunteers.

Planning the programme
Having decided on the employment of volunteers here are the elements to consider:

Volunteer Co-ordinator
For a volunteer programme to succeed it is essential that one person in the organisation is given the task of co-ordinating the volunteers. A co-ordinator could be:

His or her tasks would be to recruit, select, train, find jobs for and arrange supervision for the volunteers.

Task description
A useful tool is a well designed task description. It should list specific tasks and responsibilities expected of the volunteer. Many organisations have found that filling in a task description has made them consider aspects they had not thought about before. Remember a volunteer is a person doing a task that needs to be done.

Once you have worked out a job description you will have a clear idea of the type of person you would like for the job, what abilities and skills they should have, when and where they should work, and also how many volunteers you can use and supervise. Your recruiting should be geared to the target group you want to attract. If you need two men to drive in the evenings it may not be effective to advertise in a shopping centre on a Wednesday morning. Be inventive but do not forget the traditional methods of recruitment, e.g. stories in the local press, appeals to church groups and pamphlets. Ames found that most volunteers were recruited through personal contact with somebody already involved. Make sure your volunteers are satisfied and happy and you can be sure they will attract others – your best recruiting agent is a satisfied volunteer.

Selection of volunteers
If the policy of an agency is to accept every offer of help whether they are needed or not, dissatisfaction will occur on both sides. Screening should take place. This means the agency can determine whether a prospective volunteer fits a job and the prospective volunteer can decide whether they can meet the demands of the job. Most co-ordinators have an initial interview with the prospective volunteer. This should be conducted with some formality, e.g. make an appointment, have a definite place for the interview, possibly have some forms to fill in. If you treat this person as someone seriously seeking a job he/she will also treat their commitment as such. A word of warning: accept that some people may be threatened by an interview, especially if they have not been in paid employ for a while, so be relaxed, offer them a cup of tea, etc. Some agencies only select after an orientation or training course. The number of volunteers being used by an agency, staff time and type of volunteer work will affect how selective the agency needs to be.

As you discuss various job possibilities you may alter the job description to suit the particular person. Many uncertainties as to whether they will come on a Thursday or Friday, whether they will work in school holidays or not, and whether they may bring gifts for the children can be clarified while working out the job description with them. For volunteers working in direct contact with vulnerable client groups, screening is a crucial part of the programme. Consider using more than one staff member to screen, and always listen to your gut feelings. There is a chance that you might lose an excellent volunteer, but it is a far greater loss in the life of a child who is abused. Some of the questions to ask are:

Volunteers could also be asked for references, be screened in the orientation/training process, work for a trial period, work with a staff member, and have feedback given by the clients. Volunteers should also be supervised, however effective the screening process is. Clients should also be prepared, and need to know that some situations are risky e.g. if someone tries to isolate them from other kids/staff.

The commitment and quality of service can only be enhanced by a knowledge of the field of operation of the organisation where they will be working. Some organisations have an orientation course for all new volunteers before they start work, others deal with certain aspects when they first start work and then have a course, when there are sufficient volunteers to make a course practical.

A typical orientation course will include:

Many volunteers are attracted to work with children, and they often have unrealistic expectations of this. They need to know the children will not be easy, polite and responsive. If relevant they also need to know what the minimum commitment you expect from them “it can be damaging to have a constant turnover of volunteers.

Orientation helps the volunteer to feel comfortable in the organisation and with the clients. Training enables the volunteer to feel competent to perform the job they are asked to do. Whether training is necessary or not will depend on the skills that will be necessary for the particular tasks and whether the particular volunteer has those skills, i.e. a qualified typist will not need training to be a voluntary typist but she may need training to be a play group organiser for mentally retarded pre-school children.

Training could be in groups of those performing similar tasks or be individually by staff members or experienced volunteers.

Ongoing training and meetings and supervision
Initially the basic skills can be taught and some orientation to the organisation can be done but most volunteers will want to know more as they get involved in the actual work. There are those people who are willing to perform repetitive tasks year in and year out. If on the other hand we are asking for volunteers who will use their initiative, take responsibility and be more than a pair of hands they will start asking questions about their roles and tasks. Here are a few ways to assist volunteers:

Volunteers as much as paid staff, and perhaps more so, need to feel an integral part of the organisation; they need to be involved not only in the tasks they perform, but in the general running of the agency. They need to know of new developments in the organisation, to be invited to staff luncheons, annual general meetings, seminars, etc. Above all, they need the recognition from the agency that they are an important part of the total service of the agency, e.g. recognition in the Annual Report, at the Annual General Meeting, to name but a few examples.

By means of the outlines given in this paper, it is believed that many of the reservations and difficulties frequently expressed in using volunteers may fall away and a more dedicated volunteer and satisfied agency may emerge. In a country such as ours, where the welfare services are so largely the responsibility of the members of the community and not the State, and where our philosophy is based on the community itself being involved with those amongst us who need special services and facilities, the opening of doors to service and involvement of volunteers must receive our serious consideration. The needs within our communities are as varied as the talents of our volunteers; we need but the knowledge and machinery to link them together to the mutual benefit of all.

The International Child and Youth Care Network

Registered Public Benefit Organisation in the Republic of South Africa (PBO 930015296)
Incorporated as a Not-for-Profit in Canada: Corporation Number 1284643-8

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