Sunday, November 13, 2011

Maintaining a Sustainable Volunteer Program

I have spent most of my animal welfare career managing a volunteer department, and I still remember the comment that was said to me by a board member on the first day I took over the program at the shelter I was working.  When my boss introduced me as the new volunteer coordinator, the board member said, “Oh, you have a tough job, we can’t live with volunteers and we can’t live without them.”  At the time, I had no clue what she was referring to, but in reflection the statement makes sense to me now—a healthy, functioning volunteer program can be a shelter’s greatest asset whereas an ailing, nonfunctioning program can be its worst enemy. 

Regardless of the size and “shape” of an animal shelter, everyone needs a volunteer program.  In some shelters, volunteers add the finishing touches to daily routines, in others they participate in vital operations including cleaning and feeding animals, while in other shelters completely volunteers run the show.   Whatever the case may be at your shelter, the mark of a great volunteer program is the quality of its infrastructure.  In other words, to end up on the “our-volunteer-program-is-one-of-our-greatest-assets” side of the coin, a shelter must provide a solid infrastructure to support a productive volunteer program.    

Ensuring a solid infrastructure is in place
Consider a volunteer’s tenure from beginning to end.  Ideally, you want to have a well oriented and prepared volunteer reporting for duty on day one, so you need to invest in the volunteer as a resource before they ever begin paying out.  I have found the following orientation training model to work well:

Step 1: Attend General New Volunteer Orientation
·      Background/history of organization
·      Current organizational structure including services offered to the public/animals in need
·      Statistics (unfortunately, I have seen a few eyes glaze over while I talk about shelter stats, but in staying true to industry standards of transparency, I still think presenting basic stats is a good idea!)
·      Specific volunteer programs/jobs—present in detail the various volunteer opportunities
·      Tour of facility (if you have one)
·      Animal handling and animal body language presentation—general concepts.  There are many free online sources for this, but if you are lucky enough to have a behavior department or CPDT (or the like), get them involved in the presentation

Step 2: In-Shelter Small Group Training
·      Once a volunteer is assigned (or chooses) a program he or she would like to work in, connect them with a trained and experienced volunteer to show them the details of the program
·      Detailed training in animal handling and body language

Step 3: Volunteering with a Mentor
·      Volunteer is on his or her own, but scheduled at the same time as an experienced volunteer.  This allows for an easy question/answer flow when things come up and also a confidence booster for the new volunteer.

Once a volunteer is working within your organization, the next challenge is to keep them working within your organization.  There is a certain percentage of volunteers that will be a revolving door no matter how fantastic your program is: people will always move, get a job, have a baby, etc (In fact, the average national volunteer retention rate is 64.5%).  The contest now becomes engaging your volunteers to keep coming back.  Here are some key ideas to achieve this:

1.     Define a commitment for the volunteers: ten hours of volunteering each month, five community events each year, foster 8 animals in a year, etc.
2.     Provide periodic continuing education and training refresher courses—especially helpful for volunteers that lapse in their commitment and then return to duty.
3.     Offer multiple volunteer programs or opportunities to appeal to a wider range of people and levels of commitment.
4.     Define a volunteer coordinator and make this one person the volunteer’s point of contact for everything. 
5.     Host regular volunteer meetings to allow for volunteer ideas and concerns to be addressed.  Volunteers are important stakeholders, so make them feel as such.   
6.     Recognize volunteering milestones—these can be defined to suit your organization, but it is important to acknowledge a volunteer’s anniversary, consistency, job well done, continued commitment, etc. 

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