On the care and keeping of volunteers

An authority's advice: Be flexible, aware of how to reward the effort

December 21, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the Sun

Kristi Giles and Suzanne Davis, both managers of volunteers at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, say they have an ace in the hole when it comes to attracting unpaid helpers: penguins.

But getting those volunteers to return time and again is more challenging, no matter how cute the animals in the workplace. That is why Giles and Davis traveled to Howard County recently to hear a talk about retaining volunteers, sponsored by the Howard County Association of Volunteer Administrators.

The group, which provides information and support to people who manage volunteers, had invited Ashley Klapper, assistant director of Jewish Volunteer Connections, to discuss how the volunteer population has changed and how to cope with those changes.

"You're always looking for ways to improve," Giles said.

During her 90-minute talk, Klapper noted that volunteers these days tend to be busy baby boomers who will donate their time regularly only if they get something in return. "People have a very limited attention span," she said. "We just generally are not a commitment-minded culture anymore."

Klapper started her talk by going around the room and asking the dozen or so participants to explain why people do not commit to volunteering.

The answers were fairly predictable: People don't have much time; they get bored easily; they don't enjoy the work.

"They're not feeling fulfilled by the activity," suggested Pam Simonson, the group's program chairwoman.

Those are problems, Klapper said, but volunteer managers can combat them by thinking about how to make the volunteer happy with the work. Somebody might sign up to give back to society, to learn a skill, out of belief in the cause or because it will be fun, she said.

Thinking about those reasons, and working to fulfill them can improve a volunteer's experience and inspire that person to come back regularly, Klapper said. If somebody likes the social aspect of volunteering, make sure they work with others. If they get satisfaction from reaching goals, give them specific assignments.

Klapper also noted that volunteers often are busy people who do not want to waste time. Many are retirees who want flexibility to travel and pursue hobbies. And, because of technology such as video on demand, the Internet and cell phones, they are used to making their own schedules.

"How do we work with a society that says, `I will do what I want when I want?'" Klapper asked.

The key, she said, is to build flexibility into the volunteering schedule, often with the help of technology. Instead of telling volunteers to show up at 2 p.m. every Wednesday, for example, managers can post an online schedule and ask volunteers to sign up for the times that work best.

Technology can also be used to create a phone forwarding system, she said, and "you just made an opportunity for somebody who is homebound." As a bonus, that person may be lonely, and will enjoy the interaction.

Klapper spoke of organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and the Ronald McDonald House, which have waiting lists for volunteers.

"How do we become so cool that we have people lining up to volunteer for our organization?" she asked.

The answer: Ask volunteers what they hope to gain from their experiences, then help them meet those goals. Happy volunteers will inevitably promote the organization.

Klapper used the example of a hypothetical soup kitchen to show how volunteer managers can think in new ways. The dinner had to be ready to serve at 5:30 p.m. each day, but few volunteers were available in the late afternoon for meal preparation.

Klapper asked her audience to come up with alternative ideas. Their suggestions included giving volunteers the ingredients and a serving dish so that they could prepare the food at home and take it in the next day; asking volunteers to come in on a Saturday for a meal-preparation session; and asking local companies to donate one volunteer a week, lessening the burden on any one person.

Klapper tackled the toughest cases, people who volunteer because a school project or a court order requires it. Klapper said that even the most reluctant volunteers can be hooked if they are given useful tasks and made to feel valued.

Ann Combs, a volunteer coordinator with the county Department of Recreation and Parks agreed, saying that a number of court-ordered volunteers wound up as employees because they liked the work so much.

"Staff treatment is key," she said.

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