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The Volunteer Periphery

Sea of peripheral volunteers

I have a friend who never seems to see the people around him. He lets the door swing shut just as an elderly man is about to walk through and he never sees the mom carrying a baby needing to get by as he blocks the aisle in the store. It’s as though he has no peripheral vision. It got me to thinking about managers of volunteers and how we develop our peripheral vision to the point of hyper awareness.

You know what I mean. You’re the kind of person who:

counts the number of people behind you in the buffet line at a friend’s party and then you mentally divide up the pasta portions in the pan to make sure that you don’t take more than your share.

looks around at a concert, sizing up the height of the crowd and then squeezes into a spot that ensures you don’t block the petite woman to your left.

Does this sound like you? I thought so.

We all have peripheral volunteers. These are the volunteers who are episodic, temporarily inactive, retired, yet to be trained, prospective, or absent. And unlike the world of paid staff where rosters consist of those receiving paychecks, our peripheral volunteers remain on our stats and radar.

We don’t have the luxury of ignoring them because they are potentially contributing volunteers. Or they may have given years of service and we owe them our attention. They float around in the periphery, bobbing in and out of view because we have a fluid connection with them. And how about the guilt that comes with not paying proper attention to them. (Yep, just think of how you felt when you forgot that volunteer’s 80th birthday, the one who gave twenty years of service to your organization)

What can we do with these outlying volunteers? How can we keep them in view as we scurry about in our busy day? Where do they fit into statistics?

This is one area in which:

  1. technology serves us well
  2. volunteers can assume pivotal roles
  3. stats reflect the monumental balancing we do
  4. volunteer message sharing can actually help

When lists that capture prospective, episodic, absent, retired, ill and every other category meaning non current pile up, it’s time to create some systems that help.

Create categorized email lists-prospective volunteers, group and corporate volunteers, temporarily inactive volunteers etc. Decide which groups get which messages, e.g., upcoming training sessions, newsletters, notices about volunteer events or vacancies, etc.

Recruit volunteers to oversee the periphery-lists are only helpful if they are accurate. It’s humbling when you take a call telling you that volunteer Dave died a year ago and his family keeps getting mail addressed to him. A volunteer or volunteers in charge of overseeing other volunteers on the periphery can focus on keeping lists up to date. They can also make phone calls, interview, do impromptu surveys, offer new opportunities, gather information and compile statistics. The scope of the potential work can fill a full-time position or several part-time positions.

Report your time spent managing peripheral volunteers-this is an invisible area that requires a lot of time so report it as part of your recruitment, retention, and cultivation. Refer to your efforts to engage “prospects”, retain episodic volunteers, build community awareness, increase visibility, maintain good relationships, cultivate donors, supporters etc. This nuanced area of our work is critical and should be accounted for.

Share messaging with other organizations, but be careful. Bombarding potential volunteers with multiple messages can be off-putting, so don’t overload emails with “spam.” Instead, co-op with other volunteer organizations and include “other good work opportunities” at the end of every other month newsletters (or other scheduling) with contact information. As your volunteer opportunities are added to the internals at other organizations, you’ve just exponentially increased your recruitment efforts.

Volunteer management casts a wide net. Presiding over the sea of active, potential and former volunteers is daunting. Systems in place to oversee peripheral volunteers will help to ease the overwhelming burden and free us up to concentrate on innovation and solutions.

Out nets are huge and always jumping with activity. If our eyes and hands are always on every inch of those nets, then we can’t steer the boat.