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Ground Rules for Volunteer Departments

“I need 8 volunteers or maybe 9, no wait,” she says, grabbing your arm in the hallway, “yeah, make it 10, the more the better, right?” Her attention is on the person down the hall, but she glances over her shoulder. “Have them at the Reed Center at 9 tomorrow.”

Well, hello ground rules. Continuing the conversation from last week, (and a big shout out to everyone who weighed in here and on LinkedIn with great ideas on their excellent ground rules) here are two ways to look at setting them up.


Three staff members request volunteers. Count the number of letters to determine which request gets top priority: The smallest number of letters wins.

Amy: A

Roz: R

Herschel: H


Ground Rules

As you can see, Herschel clearly wins even though he only gave 3 days’ notice to find volunteers versus the week Roz gave.  And Amy, well, it will be a cold day in Honolulu before she gets a volunteer, unless it’s the guy that has to do court ordered volunteering, the one that talks incessantly about how he only had two beers when he crashed into that tree. Yep, Amy, I got your back.

Ok, now for real. What are some of the priorities that can actually be weighed against less important requests? When proposing the adoption of priorities versus non-priorities to upper management, bring a few examples of how you look at prioritizing volunteer engagement.

And don’t be afraid to drop the “S” word: Strategy. As in, “in order to better serve the mission, let’s strategize our priorities.”

Your list of examples will spur senior management to adopt a “Priority Principle.” Setting priorities means asking the following questions and assigning a weight to each one. Weight determines priority status.

Do the clients come first, no matter what? What does the mission say? Clearly, the client’s needs are the reason we exist. This is a great place to start, because weight should be the highest.

What does the organization need to run smoothly? Volunteers are vital in keeping the organization running. Do volunteers fill in for staff when they are absent? Do volunteers take weekend shifts? Do volunteers occupy roles that must be filled in order to serve clients? The weight here has to be really high.

Which stakeholders count the most? Donors, dignitaries, potential clients and influencers all carry weight. What events or strategies involve the most bang for the buck? This is where weight will flesh out low priority requests. Staffing a booth at a last-minute  weekend fair carries little weight against an annual festival with high visibility attended by key stakeholders.

Is the time frame reasonable? Weight needs to balance up and down between last-minute and timely requests.

Is the request feasible? It may be hard to define feasibility, because we typically entertain all requests. (which does not imply all requests will be met) Having a listing or report outlining the skills, availability and interests of the volunteers can be applied against requests. Weight is equal to feasibility. For example, you can say…

At this time, we do not have any volunteers who have an interest in washing the board members’ cars as a ‘thank you.’ Time spent trying to convince our volunteers that this activity is more meaningful than engaging with clients or keeping the reception desk staffed will deplete precious time from requests that further our mission.

What is the amount of work involved when enlisting volunteers? Work=time=there’s only so much, even if you work sixty hour weeks. How many volunteers are requested? How specialized are the skills needed?

Are any of the following factors within the request out of the norm? (timeframe, location, ability to get to assignment, duties, weather, duration, stress level, etc.) Complicated requests require additional time and if the complicated request holds a high priority, then the weight of other requests is reduced by a factor reflecting the extra effort needed to obtain volunteers.

How does this engage volunteers? We must add this one into the mix. Volunteer retention or sustainability is directly related to engagement. Strategizing retention must be highly weighted and given top priority.

We may not agree with all of the decisions made when administration strategizes priorities, but we have to be flexible because having administration’s ‘stamp of approval’ will be worth it the next time a flurry of requests are dropped on your desk.

Volunteer services is not a buffet of ordering without end. Actually, even buffets have a limited number of choices if you think about it. I can’t get Tantanmen at any of the buffets in my area, although I crave it. So, why should anyone be able to “get” a volunteer to sit outside the chapel “just in case an upset family member should enter?”

Professional, efficient volunteer departments need ground rules in order to ensure the priority requests are met. After all, at year-end, the organization is no better off because you ‘got’ five volunteers to dress up like clowns at some poorly attended event, right?