The Oak Life Journal
Nov | Dec 2023
By Cameron Talbot
6 minute read
Managing an active group of volunteers from the community is a vital part of running a children’s home. Volunteers bring a willingness to work, their life experience and personal network.
In this article, we will discuss several important aspects of volunteer management, and common conflicts that arise within the relationship.
Identify the Director
The first step in successfully managing a volunteer program is to identify a singular person on staff who will carry the responsibility. Having one “Volunteer Program Director” is important, because it centralizes communication and helps prevent confusion between the volunteers and the general staff or organization.
The Volunteer Program Director is responsible for building and maintaining positive relationships with each and every volunteer. This is not always an easy task! The director is essentially the face of the organization to volunteers, and must conduct themselves in a professional manner, handle conflict with care, honor their word, graciously uphold boundaries, and make the volunteers feel appreciated.
With this in mind, remember that errors on the part of the Volunteer Program Director will reflect poorly on the entire organization. While a perfect relationship with everyone cannot be expected, a successful manager is one that understands the gravity of their role and works hard to present well.
Even with the best director, though, conflicts will inevitably arise. There is no real way to predict the types of conflicts that a Volunteer Program Director will encounter. However, here are a few common issues that we have seen, and our recommendations for response—
Wanting to change everything
Many well-intentioned volunteers come in and immediately want to change everything. This probably happens because they are arriving with a heart to better your home in some way, and so they often keep a look out for weaknesses or areas that “need improvement.”
Unfortunately, though, their assessment is usually predicated on little to no personal experience or understanding of the complexity of a children’s home. And even if their suggested changes are wise, volunteers are usually not the right individuals to be instigating those changes.
Of course, this tendency can be mitigated by pointing it out during the onboarding process. Introductory conversation can include a statement, such as,
“We know you want to be as helpful as possible, so I will tell you—in the past we have had volunteers who want to immediately change everything. They mean well, but this is usually not the most helpful. If you ever have a concern, you can always inform me, but we would ask that you focus on the area to which you have been assigned.”
If a volunteer does begin to exhibit opinions and frustrations with the intent to change things inappropriately, then a gracious response could be,
“I also recognize that our home has room for improvement. But those improvements need to be made by the directors whose job it is to see the home’s needs as a whole and have the experience to make changes carefully. So stick with us, keep learning and doing good work here, and have patience.”
Another issue that can arise with volunteers is that of pushing boundaries. Preemptively, this is why all volunteers should sign agreement to a Code of Conduct, and the home’s policies and procedures manuals. When an individual begins to approach or cross a line of conduct, they must be immediately referenced back to their agreement with the organization.
If the boundaries being pushed are in reference to engagement with the children, then the situation should be taken extremely seriously. Impropriety often begins with small indiscretions and will grow if left unchecked. Boundaries for engagement with children are there for everyone’s protection, and the Volunteer Program Director must carefully ask themselves, in conjunction with the rest of the directorate, why a volunteer feels the freedom to disregard boundaries.
Slowly pushing boundaries with children is a critical red flag to watch out for, and can indicate predatory intentions.
If the infraction is small, confront the volunteer and refer them back to the conduct manuals. Very clearly let them know that their behavior is unacceptable, and that any further infractions will lead to their dismissal. If they repeat the behavior, or push boundaries in another area, it is recommended that they be removed.
Volunteers can be unreliable. Remember that they are giving freely of their time and skills with no compensation, which means their reliability is entirely dependent on their level of maturity, generosity and character. While many individuals have a genuine desire and recognize the goodness in being a giving volunteer, not all will have yet achieved the maturity and character to do so. And that’s alright! But it does mean that the home is responsible for mitigating this risk until a volunteer’s dependability has been solidly proven.
The administration needs dependable volunteers for smooth operation, and the children need dependable volunteers to avoid further trauma of abandonment and neglect.
For this reason, it is our recommendation that all volunteers be given non-essential roles until they have proven their reliability. Starting out their journey as part of a group, project or activity that is already functioning gives them a period of light responsibility wherein they can demonstrate their commitment.
Whether intentional and vindictive or simply through imprudence, criticism or gossip, many volunteers have been known to damage a home’s reputation in the community through defamatory speech.
Obviously, if the volunteer is spreading lies in a cruel or genuinely harmful way, then they should be confronted and let go from their position. If, however, the situation is more nuanced, then having an honest conversation can often resolve the issue.
Misunderstandings happen, feelings can be hurt, and foolish things can be said. With wisdom, attempting to repair the relationship is usually the right thing to do, and can prevent the issue from spreading further. These conversations can be difficult, but redemption and forgiveness should be the goal.
Managing volunteer relationships also means being very careful with the amount of requests and work they are burdened with. Some of the most genuine people will give everything they can when they see the need and believe in the mission. A temptation is to begin relying on them for too much.
Be sensitive to how your volunteers are feeling, what’s going on in their personal lives, and the amount of requests you make of them. Ask them plainly how they are doing, and what they need. In this way, you build a strong partnership. However and whenever care can be given in both directions, the relationship will be strengthened to everyone’s benefit.
Contrarily, it doesn’t help anyone if the greatest volunteers who want to give everything are used up, exhausted, burn out and leave. Take care of your volunteers.
And finally, celebrate them loudly!
At every opportunity, after every completed task, the Volunteer Program Director should be expressing gratitude wholeheartedly and sincerely on behalf of the organization. Volunteers who are ignored on the job or are not regularly thanked will begin to wonder if they are truly making a difference. And remember, the desire to make a difference is the only reason they made the commitment in the first place! Voice your thanks often and loudly.
Here are a few more ideas to keep the appreciation rolling:
- Host an annual volunteer celebration dinner
- Encourage kids to draw pictures or write thank you notes
- Post pictures of volunteer work and tag participants