Part One: why it’s worth sharing the decision-making around volunteers

A Story

Sharing and Volunteer Decision-MakingWhen I recruited and trained volunteers for a CASA program, the toughest part of my job was rejecting applicants. It gave me heartburn, quite frankly, to hear the disappointment or anger voiced by people who for one reason or another were not a good fit for our program – especially when they did not anticipate that they might be turned down.

One angry man warned me that it was “our loss” to reject him. Many, many others cried when they heard bad news that they did not expect. Over time, I reached a point where I simply could not tolerate the stress of turning away another person who did not see rejection coming their way.

So I asked my CASA supervisors for help – and a very specific kind of help: I asked them to let anyone they interviewed know up front that they might not be accepted into the program and to understand that the decision came down to fit and was not personal. We mentioned all of these things in our information session, but I needed their support in re-setting expectations when things boiled down to the one-on-one.

It was easy to make this kind of request in my program because we already shared responsibility for just about every stage of the volunteer onboarding process. While I led the marketing, recruiting, screening, and training efforts, I never did so alone – each of these actions was supported by the supervisors who ultimately worked with the volunteers. Supervisors came along with me to information sessions, conducted in person interviews with candidates, and ultimately matched the volunteers with the children for whom they advocated.

As a staff, we shared the decision making around which volunteers to bring into the program and how best to leverage their talents – we all had a stake in a volunteer’s success.

Why the Story?

This type of shared responsibility came to mind last month, when I ran a training on targeted marketing for volunteers. One person in the group, “Nora,” came up to me after the session in complete frustration. Even though she appreciated the workshop, she still felt discouraged about finding highly skilled volunteers for her program.  She felt a huge amount of pressure to maintain a large volunteer pool with a high retention rate.

As we talked, it became clear that Nora was doing a good job bringing volunteers into her program.  She understood which volunteers were likely to work best, she trained them, and then she even interviewed the families these volunteers worked with and made the matches. It was only at that point that the volunteers were turned over to supervisors who oversaw their ongoing work.

No wonder that Nora despaired. She was completely responsible for the outcome of each volunteer who entered the program – even though she was not the one who ultimately supervised them.

Nora’s problem had nothing to do with her volunteer onboarding skills. Instead, she was experiencing what it was like to work within a lopsided organizational system.

The Story Behind the Story

We all lose out when the responsibility for volunteer results resides with one person.  We lose the collective wisdom of other staff members who come in contact with volunteers and have important observations to share. And we lose an important opportunity to create an environment that’s primed for buy-in, by coming together as a team and rallying around a common goal.

This is why I have come to see the soft skills side of our jobs as so essential. We can get up and running with basic hard skills like recruiting and training pretty fast. But when we experience high stress in our work, it’s generally not a hard skill issue – it’s an organizational problem.

If we are really committed to running programs that nurture volunteer talent and improve our communities, we must learn how to influence our leadership to create a stronger system where everyone invests in the outcomes for volunteers.

NEXT WEEK: advice from a pro on how to make change happen.


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We all stand to gain when a program shares responsibility for volunteer results,