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How Many Supervisors Does It Take to Screw in a Volunteer?

How Many Supervisors Does It Take to Screw in a Volunteer?

Lightbulb jokes aside, one of the eternal questions which shows up on a regular basis in online discussions, training sessions and inquisitive e-mails is usually framed quite simply:

"What's the recommended ratio of supervisory staff to volunteers?"

Susan greets this question with a quiet sigh; Steve tends to jump up and down and scream.

It's not, you understand, that this is a dumb question. In fact, it's usually posed by people who are actually trying to think constructively about volunteer management and trying to find some benchmarks for an essential part of management: the relationship between those who supervise and those who are supervised.

On the other hand it's a frustrating question for us because no one ever likes the really simple answer that any consultant on volunteer involvement will give:

"Well, Sparky, it depends...."

And this frustration is exacerbated by the fact that somewhere underlying this question may well be a disturbing set of notions about what volunteers are, versus what "real" staff are. More on that later....

Steve begins.

Lightbulb jokes 1 aside, one of the eternal questions which shows up on a regular basis in online discussions, training sessions and inquisitive e-mails is usually framed quite simply:

"What's the recommended ratio of supervisory staff to volunteers?"

Susan greets this question with a quiet sigh; Steve tends to jump up and down and scream.

It's not, you understand, that this is a dumb question. In fact, it's usually posed by people who are actually trying to think constructively about volunteer management and trying to find some benchmarks for an essential part of management: the relationship between those who supervise and those who are supervised.

On the other hand it's a frustrating question for us because no one ever likes the really simple answer that any consultant on volunteer involvement will give:

"Well, Sparky, it depends...."

And this frustration is exacerbated by the fact that somewhere underlying this question may well be a disturbing set of notions about what volunteers are, versus what "real" staff are. More on that later....

Some Background Information

The whole notion of attempting to set standards for the number of people that could effectively be supervised by a designated leader supposedly began with the Roman army. The Romans used two kinds of supervisory ratios. The first, and most basic, was 1:2, that is, one supervisor to two workers. This ratio was derived, as least in theory, because it mirrored the basic Roman fighting technique in which soldiers would overlap shields with the person on the left and on the right, forming a protective fighting unit.

The second Roman supervisory ratio was 1:100, in which the "1" was the Centurion, Commander of 100. This ratio was derived in a quite practical manner; 100 people spanned an area about as large as could audibly be yelled at during a battle, so it represented the limit to effective communication.

Since that time various military organizations have tried to determine what a viable ratio of leaders to workers would be. You can track the ongoing debate about this if you do an Internet search on the phrase "span of control," a notion pioneered by Luther Gulick in 1937. At one time the US Army advocated for a ratio to 1:7; there's now an ongoing discussion as to whether this number should be changed given new communication technology and advanced modes of fighting.

Supervisory Ratios in Volunteer Programs

You can also do an Internet search on supervisory ratios in volunteer programs and you will find, to no one's surprise, a lot of very different numbers:

  • the Ventura Country Red Cross boasts a volunteer/staff ratio of 100:1
  • the Pacific Vision Foundation records a volunteer/staff ratio of 12:1
  • the long-term care ombudsman program listed state-by-state ratios of staff to volunteers in 1995 that ranged from 1:1 to 1:100

So, which of these ratios is "good"?

I personally suspect that none of the listed organizations could effectively answer that question. They got their numbers simply by counting bodies and then assuming that "lean, mean" management was best indicated by heroic leadership – one really giant staff brain supervising the work of hordes of volunteers. Aren't we efficient?

For those of us who are serious about volunteers this notion is highly disturbing in both philosophical and managerial terms.

Getting Serious about Staff/Volunteer Ratios

If you really want to be serious about a staff/volunteer ratio you might want to emulate some of the thinking done by one of our favorite organizations, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).

CASA utilizes volunteers to help protect the interests of children who are peripherally involved in our court system, often because they have been abused by their own parents. CASA volunteers (also known as Guardians Ad Litem, or GALS) advocate for the best interests of the child and are monitored by CASA case supervisors. Nationally, CASA has developed a standard for adequate supervision: no more than 30 volunteers should be assigned to one full-time supervisor, and a smaller ratio is preferred.

Unlike most programs, however, CASA actually thought about this before picking a number out of a hat and developed a rationale for the recommended ratio. Here's part of their thinking:

  • Supervisors need to have at least general knowledge of each case in order to provide appropriate and timely consultation to the volunteer. The supervisor should also have enough knowledge of a case and sufficient time available in order to step into the volunteer's place in an emergency when a volunteer is unavailable. This could involve as many as 90 cases at one time.
  • Supervisors must be accessible to volunteers at all times. They must be available in emergencies twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week or have a system established that allows a volunteer to contact someone for advice or consultation during such times.
  • Supervisors should hold regular one-to-one conferences with each volunteer to discuss case activities as well as the volunteer's overall development and performance. When a volunteer is new and/or assigned to a very active case, this could require meetings weekly and telephone contact more often.
  • Supervisors should be available to attend court hearings with volunteers to provide support and to monitor performance. Experienced volunteers may not need supervisors at every hearing, but supportive staff should be available for contested hearings at a minimum.
  • Supervisors should facilitate regular peer meetings of volunteers for the purpose of providing and reinforcing training, disseminating information, and as a means of support for the volunteers. The model of monthly meetings of no more than 10-15 volunteers has been recommended as the most successful.
  • Supervisors should provide frequent feedback to volunteers on their performance and a formal evaluation at least yearly.
  • Supervisors should be provided adequate time for professional development that allows for maintaining up-to-date knowledge and skills. They should also be given adequate time for seeking support from colleagues and other CASA/GAL staff to relieve the stress inherent in this kind of position which has a high burnout rate.

In other words, CASA thought about:

1. the kind of volunteers they have;

2. the type of work the volunteers do and how much support/supervision is required to make sure they can do that work well;

3. the ongoing management and supervisory relationship between supervisors and volunteers; and

4. the other duties and responsibilities of the supervisor.

And I'd recommend adding one more element to the list:

5. The background and ability of the supervisor.

Susan continues.

The five criteria above for determining adequate volunteer supervision that CASA and Steve propose are reasonable and logical - if anyone stops long enough to think about them. But, because we are talking about volunteers, there are actually even more variables that should force every organization to examine its own situation rather than seek external standards. For example:

6. The schedules of the volunteers.

Are volunteers active only during agency hours, or do they work 24/7, perhaps even when paid staff does not? The latter poses different supervisory demands.

7. Whether volunteers work on or off site.

Seeing volunteers face-to-face may be more time-consuming in terms of longer conversations, though it may take more conscious attention to communicate with volunteers in the field or in virtual assignments.

8. Whether volunteers work as individuals, small teams, or larger groups.

Having to give instructions and support one-to-one is labor intensive, while teams and groups can be structured with a team leader to share the supervision. And some volunteer groups are self-governed (auxiliaries, "friends of" groups), in which case paid staff provides liaison but not true supervision.

9. How long the work shifts are.

Though it may sound less intensive to supervise people who are only in for a few hours a week versus those who clock several days a week, in truth a supervisor has to talk with, give work to, and otherwise support every volunteer, so many quick in/out workers can actually prove quite demanding of time. Certainly they bring more interruptions of other work.

10. How much turnover there might be.

Newer volunteers need more support than veteran ones - and, possibly, new paid staff may need longer to work with volunteers than experienced staff. So units with a stable paid or volunteer corps may require less supervision time. But since today's reality is that many volunteers are seeking short-term, episodic assignments and many employees expect to "move on" in sequential jobs, it may well be that supervisory needs will be on the upswing for some time.

One of the reasons it's so difficult to give standard answers to questions about volunteers is that they aren't interchangeable objects. Criterion #1 above was " the kind of volunteers they have." Most volunteer programs seek diversity and too often we get what we wish for! Volunteers in one organization can range from toddlers to nonagenarians; high school dropouts to doctoral candidates; highly literate to new English-speakers; etc. No paid workforce has this wide a range of characteristics all in one location. Most employees fall between the ages of 18 to 65, at the outside, and have a quite narrow range of qualifications to match the job descriptions available. So it may make sense to ask how many social workers, park rangers, or soldiers should one supervisor oversee, but there is simply too little consistency among who volunteers are to ask the same question about them.

Who Do They Mean by "Supervisor"?

The question " What's the recommended ratio of supervisory staff to volunteers?" may need some clarification. On the surface, it sounds like it's about the frontline: What does it take to help volunteers do their assignments? That's how CASA approaches it and it's a practical consideration.

Beware, however, that uninformed administrators may actually be asking a very different question: "What's the number of staff we need to coordinate a growing volunteer program?" The less benign version of this would be: "How large can the volunteer program become with as small a volunteer coordinating staff as possible?"

Clearly all the reasons why there is no standard ratio of supervisors to volunteers apply to why there is no standard ratio to determine the optimal size of the volunteer program staff. (And, to the dismay of many, even a large staff in the volunteer office does not let other employees off the hook from frontline supervision!) If you need even more ammunition, point out that you cannot give primary supervision to volunteers in specific units but that, in addition to all the external responsibilities you have to recruit, interview, place, recognize, etc. all the volunteers, you may be:

  • Personally supervising those volunteers whose assignments are directly in the volunteer office, as well as team leaders or shift captains.
  • Providing liaison to all-volunteer groups that are self-governing but need to be linked to the agency.
  • Supporting all the paid staff as they supervise volunteers, including being the third party to settle disputes.

You also need to convey that just because there are 100 volunteers today does not mean there will be 100 tomorrow, nor the same 100. Just as a human resource or personnel office has ongoing work to maintain a stable employee force, the volunteer management staff's work is never done.

So What Can We Do?

We are all going to keep hearing this and similar questions, and our bosses expect answers. After we educate them with some of the points raised above, we will still be asked to suggest some sort of supervisor-to-volunteers ratio.

It may be worthwhile to evaluate which factors seem to lead to successful supervision in which units and why. Can you propose a workable range of ratios for different assignments, or for different types of volunteers (seniors vs. teens, for example)?

Just, please, do not get roped into doing an "employee equivalency" model. True, we can do the arithmetic that says 55 volunteers who give a total of 1,372 hours a month are the "equivalent" of 8.9 full-time employees. But whoever supervises them isn't working with just 9 people. All 55 volunteers must get individual attention at one point or another.

All this leads to the question of whether the amount of supervision necessary to facilitate the work of volunteers can be affected by our competence as volunteer program managers. The answer is yes.

  • We can recruit the most qualified volunteers so that they do not need hand-holding and can work as independently as possible.
  • We can train volunteers to be shift leaders and group captains (but only if they truly want such management duties), especially to support the newest volunteers and to be available to answer basic questions rather than have volunteers interrupt paid staff. Buddy systems work, too.
  • We can, whenever feasible, streamline procedures so that new volunteers can be given checklists and instruction sheets for tasks that have repetitive elements.

But efficiency may not be your organization's goal. It may meet your mission to teach teenagers or the homeless about the workplace, or allow seniors to participate in running their own program, or welcome as many members of the community as possible. If that's true, it may take quite a bit of time to supervise volunteers.and it may well be worth it.

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