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fluid“How many volunteers do you have?’ Jori was asked this question by her CEO while walking through the hallway. “We have about 125 at last count.” she replied.
“Are they all active?”
“Er, yes, they are active volunteers.”
“How do you know? Do you monitor their hours, do you know they are actually doing something or are they just names on a list that at one time volunteered?”
“I carefully look at hours every month and then contact those who don’t have recorded hours for the month.” Jori said.
“But let’s say someone only volunteers 2 hours a month. Are they still active?”
“Well, yes, they have to be in order for me to record their hours on our system. It’s the way our system is set up.”
“Hmm, I see.” With that the CEO walked away.
“That was the strangest thing I’ve encountered from my CEO.” Jori mused. “I mean, what was he implying? That I fudge my numbers, or that I don’t know who is volunteering and who isn’t? I mean, do we have to have a minimum for volunteers each month? And what about my senior volunteers? Sometimes they have a surgical procedure and it takes a month for them to recover. Should I consider them inactive, not call and see how they are doing? Should I just say hey, let me know when you’re usable again, until then, don’t bother me because you’re not active in our system?”
Jori scoffed. “He just doesn’t understand that at any given day, there are volunteers in and out of the system. They’re not employees, far from it. I don’t know how to make him see that.”

Gayle, one of the volunteer coordinators who works for a larger organization says its pretty difficult to keep track of 1500 volunteers. There are always volunteers who are on a vacation, out for health reasons, taking care of family members and other reasons they are temporarily missing. Then there are the volunteers who just sort of disappear. They don’t answer phone calls or emails. “We try to contact them and can’t and we don’t want to sound desperate or mean, but we keep trying. Eventually we send them a letter saying that we are going to inactivate them, but they can come back later. But how long should we wait? I’ve got folks who spend 3 months in Florida each year. I temporarily inactivate them but sometimes I’m not clear on when they leave or return unless they are really good about telling me.”
Gayle continued, “I do have real communicative volunteers, and these are the ones who I either see and spend time with, or they are just really conscientious, but then there are quite a few more who maybe prefer to do one time assignments. They may not have as many hours but they are really important when I need someone at the last-minute. I can’t activate and inactivate them several times a month, so they remain active but they have few hours. I guess they’re like our employees who work out of a pool.”

If you manage more than 50 volunteers, the numbers start to get really fluid as volunteers come and go. Certainly we would love all volunteers to be regular, dependable and easier to track, but the reality is that we manage substantial groups of people who we cannot force to be at our beck and call at every moment of the week. Managers of employees can tell you exactly how many employees they have at any given moment, but it is harder for us. Employees have to be accounted for in order to be paid. They clock in and out. Maybe we should have volunteers clock in and out too. I think that would make my job so much easier, because statistics is a huge part of what I do.

A traffic jam is seen during the rush hour in BeijingOur volunteer base is like the fluidity of traffic. How many cars will stop at a specific traffic light today? Why don’t you know that number?
When someone asks how many volunteers you have, how do you envision the number? Active volunteers at this very moment? Active including temporarily out? Active including retired volunteers who have given so much they are still considered active but they cannot really contribute anymore? Active with more than 10 hours? Active, but only once in awhile? If we only allow volunteers who we can fit into a statistic more easily, are we keeping potentially great volunteers from serving and making our jobs much more difficult in the long run?

Gayle then added, “And what about those few volunteers who never record their hours. Yes, I know, they need to, so I try to record for them. Am I supposed to just fire them and tell them not to volunteer anymore? I guess one day I may have to.”

Fluidity is a state of changing, evolving motion. There are so many factors that render a fluid movement in our volunteer base. And with the growing trend of episodic and group volunteering, it will only get more complicated and more fluid.
So the next time someone asks you, “how many volunteers do you have,” you can give as accurate a number as you can or you can ask them “how many cars will stop at the traffic light on third street,” or you might just say, “We can always use one more.”