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Annual Volunteer PerBoremance Review

“I quit, yeah I did.” Christi poked at her sushi. “I mean, I volunteered there like, a year and everything was fine.” She clicked the chopsticks together in rhythmic thought. “Well, I thought it was, anyway. But at my performance review they told me I wasn’t doing the job all that well and that I needed improvement. You’d think they would have said something before a year, wouldn’t you? Now, I figure, everything I did for them was a waste, so I quit.”

The Annual Volunteer Performance Review (AVPR). It didn’t help Christi, did it?

The department Christi volunteered for felt that something had changed with Christi and in the past few months, they had to go behind her and fix all her mistakes. But, did they address it with her? No, they chose to just sigh and throw up their hands while muttering, “volunteers, go figure.” And so, when it was time for Christi’s AVPR, that’s when the department decided to address the issue. And so, she quit. Maybe that’s what they wanted all along, but was that the right way to handle it?

While the AVPR is set up to deliver constructive feedback, there are a few inherent problems with this model:

  • a yearly review more likely reflects the volunteer’s performance of the past month, not year
  • if a problem has not been addressed with the volunteer before the review, then the volunteer is blindsided when finding out they have not been doing well
  • it takes time to put a review together and because we’re volunteer managers, we agonize over making it just right, which takes more time
  • it gives everyone involved anxiety, i.e., the volunteer and the volunteer manager, especially when the volunteer hasn’t received much feedback up to this point
  • oftentimes it is a requirement, but it doesn’t carry any follow-up or plan of action
  • it can suck the soul from volunteering when everything is boiled down to line items
  • it doesn’t measure the real value of the volunteer’s contribution

So, should we just throw it away, even if it is a requirement? Ok, well, maybe we can’t get rid of it entirely,  but maybe we can tweak it so that it better fits our needs.

We know that volunteers need on-going feedback. More so, actually than staff. The longer the time spent away from a job (staff spends about 40 hours a week at their job and volunteers spend on average maybe 4 hours at their volunteer assignment), the greater the learning curve. Volunteers don’t have the on-going repetition of learning a job, don’t have the daily back and forth between co-workers, don’t experience the atmosphere of expectations for hours on end like staff does.  So, volunteers’ feedback needs are exponentially greater than staff’s.

Besides, they may not stay for a full year, so feedback is vitally important while they are actually volunteering.

Addressing a problem after it has been ignored for a time, creates this sinkhole of confusion, hurt feelings and anger. Ignoring problematic behavior until you can’t any longer just deepens the hole. How?

  • The volunteer is blindsided
  • You can’t really justify why you let it go on so long
  • You render your policies and procedures meaningless
  • You erode your position as a leader
  • You water down the integrity of the mission

Performance reviews imply something must be addressed. If everything is going well, then the review is a pat on the back, unless you are compelled to come up with an area that needs improvement (and a lot of performance reviews have this requirement). So, you make something up for the volunteer to work on, which renders the review pretty meaningless.

So, what can we do instead?

Give mission related feedback:  “Hey there, you’re doing a great job,” is nice in a broad kind of way, but specifics are much more meaningful. Why is the volunteer here except to further the mission? Mission related feedback can be peppered into conversations. “Thanks so much, Jep for coming out last-minute. Because of your quick response, the wife of our client Ari, was able to get to our support group. She has missed the last three group meetings and they are crucial to providing families with education and support. Do you realize that your actions directly impact our mission to support and educate our patients and their families?” These are the instances that fulfill mission centric volunteering and they need to be recorded, both in the volunteers’ files and for those all important volunteer reports.

Expect excellence: Expecting nothing more than showing up gets us, well, nothing more than showing up. (and not because the volunteers are lazy, but because the message we are sending is “we don’t expect much because we have nothing meaningful for you to do, it’s all just busywork.”) Being wishy washy nice and afraid to hurt feelings gets us a heck of a mess. Volunteers want to be part of something excellent. Let’s not rob them of that by excusing any and all behavior.

Volunteers want leaders: Leaders aren’t afraid to lead. If volunteers wanted us to be their best friend, they’d get a dog instead. They want us to inspire them, mentor and coach them to excellence. Look at your feedback in that way-“I want you to be the excellent volunteer I know you can be and by working together, we are going to accomplish great things.” (my dog never told me that, well, not in actual words anyway…)

Turn the work around: Yep, offload when you can. Instead of wracking your brain to fill out some form, ask the volunteer to come into your review meeting with 2 things they’ve accomplished over the year and 2 mission related goals they have set for the coming year. Discuss their accomplishments, how they achieved them, and then give them any suggestions you have for improvement.

And here’s the weird thing: Don’t fear that if the volunteer comes in with their perceived accomplishments, you won’t be able to address their shortcomings. Why? Because the accomplishments they point to will always somehow involve the areas in which they need improvement. How can that be? I don’t know, it’s one of those blow your mind physics things like you always hit the stop lights when you’re late. Just trust me.

After you discuss accomplishments and shortcomings, take a look at their goals.

The beauty of listening to their goals gives you an opportunity to:

  • learn more about the volunteer, where they are headed, what they value, where they feel they fit in
  • redirect any potential behavior that needs to be worked on
  • discover more about the volunteer program, what volunteers think of it, where challenges might lie, what visions volunteers have for the future
  • discover what the volunteer thinks about the organization, it’s mission, structure, staff, rules etc.
  • recharge your role as the inspirational leader of volunteers
  • re-direct everything back to the mission
  • and finally, for crying out loud, learn what it takes to keep this volunteer engaged

We can re-purpose annual reviews into goal setting discussions geared towards keeping great volunteers coming back. And then, throughout the year, we can provide the feedback that guides each volunteer towards excellence.

We can turn a perboremance review around and call it the setting of mission centric volunteer goals. 

Besides, reviews look backwards, goals look forward.

And isn’t looking forward the way to progress?