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Managing Volunteers: The HR Challenge

For many public entities, attracting, selecting, developing, motivating and retaining volunteers is essential to the mission at hand, especially in times of fiscal stress. Such fiscal woes have created a sense of urgency where volunteers are concerned. According to one survey, public entities regularly use volunteers in firefighting and emergency medical services, aging, libraries, parks and recreation, youth services, social services, education, environment/recycling, sheriff/corrections, community and economic development, public safety, and public health. Volunteers, if managed effectively, can create opportunities for public sector leaders to address constituent needs in a cost-effective manner. Often, it is the human resources manager who is responsible for volunteer management as well as maintaining cost- effective volunteer programs. The managing of volunteers can prove to be a challenge, especially in those states lacking legislation that serves to outline the rights and remedies of volunteers.

Mizell (2005) suggests that entities using volunteers should resist the temptation to deprecate the standards, commitment, and expectations required of volunteers. She further suggests that entities:

  • Screen volunteers just as you would potential paid staff. This is particularly important if your organization works with children or other vulnerable populations.
  • Always ask: Does this person have the qualifications, enthusiasm and level of commitment we’re looking for?
  • Require volunteers to go through a formal application and interview process.
  • Require volunteers to undergo training.
  • Insure that volunteers are properly supervised and periodically evaluated.

One of the less subtle challenges of managing volunteers, especially when they are few and far between, is emphasizing the fact that they are not employees of the organization who enjoy a property right to their position. In other words, your policies and procedures should clearly and unequivocally state that volunteers are not employees and that they serve at the pleasure of the entity. Consequently, they may be released for cause or no cause at all. This can be a bitter pill to swallow for people who are willing to serve in a non-salaried, non-stipend volunteer position with no or little remuneration beyond incidental expenses (arranged by most entities on a case-by-case basis and subject to the availability of funds) and no guarantee that their efforts will be noticed and rewarded. The National Association of Counties (NACO) (2012) offers steps a public entity can take when it finds it necessary to dismiss a volunteer:

  • Discuss reasons for volunteer dismissal with appropriate paid staff
  • Meet with the volunteer in a quiet, private setting
  • State the purpose of the meeting
  • Identify the volunteer’s expected behavior (from job description, evaluations, etc.)
  • Describe observed behavior, cite specific examples of inappropriate behavior
  • Compliment the volunteer on positive aspects of performance
  • Release the volunteer from duty without reprimand or apology
  • Document the conversation in writing and have a witness if possible.

Much as it would when dealing with the termination of a salaried employee, the organization should take whatever steps it can to terminate the services of a volunteer with dignity. As with most programs, the necessity that managers secure support from senior leadership when attempting to create, plan, fund, implement, execute and sustain a volunteer program cannot be overemphasized. NACO (2012) suggests that public entities:

  • Have an approved, written policy on the development of the volunteer program
  • Present a budget to cover volunteer program expenses
  • Reserve space that will be designated for the volunteer program operation, for volunteers to perform their work and for storage
  • Provide a recognition plan for volunteers and paid staff involved with the program
  • Give training to volunteers and paid staff involved in the program
  • Start a public relations campaign to promote the volunteer program
  • Ask elected officials to promote volunteerism to their constituency

As alluded to earlier, training is an essential part of volunteer service. In their book, Leadership and Management of Volunteer Programs: A Guide for Volunteer Administrators, Fisher and Cole (1993) recommend that organizations provide volunteers with in-service training to insure they are equipped with the skills, knowledge and procedures their assigned tasks require. The Community Toolbox (2013) outlines the whys of volunteer training by suggesting:

  • Training helps new volunteers get to know the people, the program and the job quickly and efficiently.
  • Training your volunteers establishes that there is a minimum competency that all volunteers are expected to obtain.
  • Many volunteers see training as a benefit of being part of an organization.
  • Training teaches them skills that may be helpful to them elsewhere and may even help them get a paying job.
  • Training publicly acknowledges a necessary level of proficiency.
  • Some organizations use training as a “weeding out” technique, making sure that volunteers who have signed up will be likely to live up to their commitments.

Although a public entity can never predict the quantity or quality of the volunteers it will attract, it is possible to gain the maximum benefit from their contributions by following some of the suggestions provided herein.

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Author: Joseph G. Jarret is a public sector manager, attorney and mediator who lectures on behalf of the Master of Public Policy and Administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is the 2013 president of the E. Tennessee Chapter of ASPA.

 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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