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volunteer department ground rules

In this dream you walk up to a woman sitting at a desk. Behind her, a closed-door is visible in an otherwise blank wall. “I need,” you say to her, “two camels, a box of jellied donuts and a ladder.”

“When?” she says, writing it down.


“I see.” She rips the sheet of paper off the pad and disappears behind the heavy door, closing it with a thud.

That’s volunteer management. Where has she gone? Are there actually camels back there? Will the donuts be fresh? Is the ladder being used by someone else? Is mine the only order she is filling? Will she be back by tomorrow?

This is why there are ground rules. Take baseball. If a batter hits a ball that bounces off the left field grass and goes into the bleachers, that’s a ground rule double. It prevents the runner from unfairly advancing and the left fielder from climbing into the bleachers and fighting the fan who picked up the ball. (well, ok, that’s a bit overblown) But without ground rules, how can anyone requesting volunteer help know what goes on behind the closed-door? How can they possibly know priorities, or time frames, or volunteer availability or the feasibility of their request?

Too often, volunteer departments operate reactively, disappearing behind the door to field multiple requests at a time. Many of those requests are last-minute, some are more complicated than others, and some morph on a daily basis. On top of these requests, the volunteer department is tasked with keeping revolving or permanent volunteer spots filled, spots that are routinely being vacated by volunteers who are absent for a myriad of reasons such as illness, vacation, moving or quitting.

And sometimes, if we are brutally honest, the most reliable and skilled volunteers are paired with the squeekiest wheel and not the most engaging assignment.

So, let’s imagine two volunteer spots are vacant. One spot is for a volunteer receptionist on the weekend when the staff receptionist is off. Phones have to be answered. The other spot is for a volunteer to deliver vital equipment to a client, also on the weekend. The client needs the equipment. Which one of these vacant spots takes priority?

With no ground rules, volunteer managers are expected to fill all spots, every time and in every time frame. It doesn’t matter when the requests are made, or how many volunteers are needed, because there are no ground rules. So what if the volunteer manager is fielding ten requests at once.

Volunteer departments need ground rules in order to end the scrambling madness. We need to outline the process behind the door in order to organize our systems for the good of everyone. With that in mind, what might these ground rules include?

Priorities: What volunteer requests are the most important and need be filled first, should all requests come at the same time? Client based? Permanent or recurring roles that fill in for staff? Recurring roles that make the organization work such as kitchen or receptionist help?

Time frame: Should a request made two days before an event have the same priority as one made weeks in advance? Having a clear chronological order or queue is a necessary ground rule. First asked, first filled will force staff to amend the last-minute request behavior. But wait. What if a volunteer calls in sick last minute for a higher priority position? Does that go to the front of the queue?

Feasibility of time spent: Requesting 20 volunteers who are willing to wait tables versus 5 volunteers to pass out flyers have differing time investments. How can this be addressed? Does a request requiring more time spent finding volunteers take precedence over one that is simpler? Or does one major event attended by potential donors and stakeholders take precedence over smaller, lesser events?

Setting ground rules won’t work if the volunteer department simply types them up and hands them out. There must be a buy in from the CEO on down through the department heads and a willingness to support the volunteer manager in the instituting of them. Asking senior management to outline priorities in say, a task force is not unreasonable and may also have the added benefit of encouraging the hierarchy to outline other organizational priorities as well.

Look at it mathematically. If there are too many requests with too little time frame and not enough skilled volunteers, then some requests will go unfilled, right? With priorities set and ground rules established, the most beneficial, most time worthy and most bang for the buck requests will be filled first.

How many times have we mused that “no one knows how to do our job until they do it?’ We are like that lady in the dream. We take the order and then disappear behind the closed-door. We are hiding the effort, the juggling, the piecing together, the circling back, the reaching out, the doubling down, the soothing over, the listening to, the rearranging, the sorting, the skills assessing and all the other components needed to engage volunteers. We are tearing our hair out behind the door and then smiling, stepping back outside while covering our bald spots with that crazy hair paint.

Ground rules are not just for baseball. Next time: Setting ground rules, or how to prioritize what’s going on behind the door.

Volunteer managers, let’s set some ground rules and play a better game of baseball.