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Clearing Hurdles on the Volunteer Obstacle Course

Clearing Hurdles on the Volunteer Obstacle Course


In June 2007, the UK newspaper The Observer published a commentary entitled, “All my family wanted to do was help. So why make it so hard?”,,2104963,00.html. Here’s an excerpt:

… my wife decided that she would like to teach numeracy and literacy to those with little or no formal education. After weeks of calls to the council and other agencies, she was finally told that she would have to obtain a City and Guilds qualification before being allowed to help out in any official capacity. She paid £200 and set aside a day each week for 10 weeks to attend a course 20 miles away. She sat through mind-numbing sessions on diversity training and the correct terms to use around disabled people. She waded through hours of home coursework involving such issues as cultural sensitivity, the possible need for separate classes for Muslim men and women and how making eye contact might be considered by some to be disrespectful.

She persisted and was contacted by the probation service who wanted her to help with court-ordered literacy and numeracy classes for offenders. After saying yes, she heard nothing for months before taking it upon herself to re-offer her services. After the inevitable police check, she was in. Months of hoop jumping, diversity training, expense, travel, personal checks and official silences to establish something that had been obvious all along - that she is an English graduate, sensitive, kind and responsible. A five-minute interview could have achieved this.

In the United States in 2005, hundreds of physicians attempting to volunteer in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were prevented or delayed due to the failure of processes to register their credentials and grant them approval to practice in a different state. The Seattle Times reported at the time:

Among the doctors stymied from helping are 100 surgeons and paramedics in a state-of-the-art mobile hospital marooned in rural Mississippi.

"We have tried so hard to do the right thing. It took us 30 hours to get here," said one of the frustrated surgeons, Dr. Preston "Chip" Rich of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The fact that government officials can't straighten out the mess and get them assigned to relief efforts, now that they're just a few miles away, "is just mind-boggling," he said in a phone interview.

In early June 2007, the charities Chance UK and NCH commissioned a survey (Page is no longer available: about recruiting volunteers to mentor troubled youth. The survey found that 13% of men who don't volunteer with children said it was because of fears they might be perceived as a possible pedophile; 17% said they wouldn't volunteer because they would face a criminal records check, a process the charities said was straightforward and non-intrusive.

If you do a search on Google for “volunteer” and “background checks,” you get 942,000 hits. Are we becoming so fearful of misinterpretation that we are stopping everyone from physically comforting a crying child or showing affection to an Alzheimer’s patient? Sometimes a hug is exactly what a volunteer ought to give. In this Points of View, we have to ask, “Can we please save the baby when we throw out the bath?”

The Professionalization of Volunteering

The past two decades have witnessed immense strides in making the involvement of volunteers a more organized and systematic endeavor. Both Susan and Steve will plead guilty to being advocates for this change, partially because they have both witnessed the unfortunate consequences of volunteer programs that were neither systematic nor organized.

And the past two decades have witnessed a concomitant introduction of innumerable processes that are inflicted upon would-be volunteers:

• application forms
• interviews
• home visits
• reference checks
• criminal background checks
• training courses of all varieties
• waits for placement
• credentialing requirements

Not all of these operate smoothly and none of them tend to operate swiftly. And all of them are intrusive of a prospective volunteer’s privacy and sense of self.

We’re not sure what the average waiting time is from “initial contact about volunteering” to “actually starting work as a volunteer.” But six months is probably not an unlikely figure, and to get that low you have to exclude volunteer positions that require substantial training. A study of volunteer ambulance officers in Tasmania found that “…it takes typically 8-12 months for a new recruit to become trained. Most of our volunteers are now ‘observers’.”

Not surprisingly, this can have an impact on would-be volunteers. The Institute for Volunteering Research in the UK found in a 2003 survey that:

“Several respondents told us they had been discouraged from volunteering because organisations took so long to respond to an initial inquiry, process an application or place the respondent once they had been recruited.”

“Several” is probably an example of that British gift for understatement.

In a 2006 e-Volunteerism Keyboard Roundtable, “Walking a Fine Line: Are We Over-formalising Volunteering?”, a panel examined the contradictions that face volunteer resource managers in not making volunteering too formal an experience for people, while in the same breath being told to exercise due diligence on health and safety, the care of vulnerable clients, and more.

Creating Systems that Work for the Volunteer

We won’t argue for a return to the old and casual systems for volunteer involvement. This is a different world, with different problems – criminal record checks are a perfect example of something that we learned the hard way needs to be done, as imperfect as they currently function.

But our goal should still be to extend a welcome to prospective volunteers, making things go as well as they can in today’s more complex environment. So we offer some ideas that will help more people actually cross the finish line as accepted volunteers.

1. Streamline the Process

A lot of the current difficulty clearly lies in bureaucracy and red tape, which is incredibly slow and as much an irritant to the volunteer program manager as it is to the volunteer.

The only real answer lies in prodding government agencies to operate in a faster and more helpful fashion. The Scottish Parliament, as an example, is currently working to make its criminal records’ check system work more effectively:

Volunteers in Scotland will have fewer forms to fill in as a result of new vetting and barring legislation currently going through the Scottish Parliament.

As well as strengthening protection for children and vulnerable adults, the Protection of Vulnerable Groups (Scotland) Bill eliminates the need for multiple form filling − one of the criticisms of the current system.

So a care home worker, who also volunteers at a Sunday School and runs the local children's football team, needs only join the scheme once − not three times. And if he or she moves to a new job, or takes up a further volunteering post, a simple online check is all that's needed to verify they are not barred from working with children or protected adults.

The problems encountered by volunteer physicians in the US are also being dealt with through governmental action. The Uniform Emergency Volunteer Health Practitioners Act (Page is no longer available: will allow states to accept the credentials of out-of-state physicians during emergency situations and establish a national database to speed verification.

In some cases, organizations may be able to streamline their own processes. The simplest way to do this is to run several processes simultaneously, such as allowing volunteers to begin a training program while their background checks are being conducted. It can be made clear that final acceptance as a volunteer is dependent upon successful completion of the background checks, but in the meantime applicants are making progress.

2. Explain the System to Volunteers

Since any application process takes time, we need to do a better job of explaining to volunteer applicants what is happening. That includes:

  • Explain – as early as possible – all the procedures, forms and application processes that a volunteer will undergo for screening and approval.
  • Detail what happens in all these steps – what information is being sought, how it will be collected, who will see the information, how it will be evaluated, and how the volunteer will be informed of the information and be allowed to respond to it.
  • Estimate conservatively how long the process might take – by “conservative” we mean “worst case” scenario, remembering that no one will be disappointed if the process takes less time than estimated.

Most social service agencies have learned the value of carefully explaining their systems to clients, making it more likely that the client will interact productively with the system rather than rebel against it through lack of understanding. We need to expand this concept to include volunteers.

3. Help Volunteers through the Wait

People who are motivated to volunteer have a natural desire to begin doing so as quickly as possible. Given that many volunteer positions don’t allow immediate gratification, we need to build alternative forms of involvement that prevent the volunteer from feeling stifled and lost in a black hole of bureaucracy. For example:

  • Proactively contact applicants during the screening process to update them on progress.
  • Add the prospective volunteer to agency newsletters and other mailing lists right away.
  • Invite the volunteer to participate in orientation and training sessions as soon as possible.
  • Assign an experienced volunteer as a mentor to the prospective volunteer to answer questions and simply stay in touch.
  • Allow the prospective volunteer to participate more actively, through shadowing and observing a current volunteer.

While the mail application process is underway, you can also develop a list of useful activities with minimal risk exposure and offer one as an opportunity for the would-be volunteer to contribute. For example, someone awaiting clearance to be matched one-to-one with a child or senior might be happy meanwhile to create a schedule of free community events, solicit free tickets to movies, or find restaurants willing to give a discount to volunteers and clients already in relationships.

All of these actions are designed to ensure that the volunteer doesn’t feel abandoned by the organization.

4. Tailor the Training to the Volunteer’s Situation

It is legitimate to want to give consistent information to all volunteers, both to help them successfully perform the work and also to assure the organization (and its risk managers) that standards are set. But too often our goal of reliable orientation and training is sidetracked by insisting on a standardized method of delivering the information. This plays out in several ways:

  • Scheduling group sessions on the basis of a pre-arranged calendar, leaving anyone not available on those dates with no recourse but to wait for the next session, which might be a long time away.
  • Not scheduling orientation or training until there are “enough” new volunteers to form a group – which, again, may leave the first applicants waiting around for more people.
  • Insisting on a specific sequence of training that follows the syllabus you’ve created and not necessarily because the material must be learned in that order.
  • Requiring that all volunteers must attend all the training, without any flexibility for a highly-skilled volunteer to skip sessions that will not offer any new material.
  • Requiring a certain number of training hours – possibly a number determined by mystical inspiration rather than practical demonstration of effectiveness – and then insisting that those hours must be spent on site or in a classroom.

So what are your options to build in more flexibility? Think technology and testing.

Putting people into a room and lecturing at them is old school. Sure, it’s a benefit to have volunteers interact with each other and develop a sense of teamwork. But if the goal is to prepare a volunteer to get out there and do the work, then focus on the content of the sessions and alternative ways to convey the information. For example, audio and/or video record all presentations. This allows you and guest speakers, including your executive director, to make a single presentation (as well as they can) and then know it can be used over and over to convey the same information in their words and style.

You can then use this growing library of recordings for off-the-cuff training sessions: encourage a new volunteer to borrow a tape to watch at home or listen to in the car, or put one to three people in a room with a VCR and let them watch together at your agency. Audio files can easily be posted to a Web site, too, from where they can even be downloaded to a portable listening device like an iPod®.

To make sure that the recorded material is actually teaching something, try this:

  • Schedule a face-to-face meeting with a volunteer who has finished listening to the recording and discuss it. Or ask an experienced volunteer to conduct this debriefing.
  • Develop a worksheet that requires the volunteer to fill in the blanks or select correct responses while watching or listening to the recording. Ask for things that someone would only know by actually watching the recording.
  • Afterwards, give a quick written “quiz” on the materials (on paper or online). This can actually be fun, if you present it as different from school exams!

The second flexibility option is especially important if you have been trying hard to recruit new volunteers who come to you with key skills. If you have a professionally trained or experienced applicant, don’t put him or her through the same preparation you would give a total novice. No one is too skilled or too important not to benefit from an orientation to your organization, or from a tour of the facility, or from solid instructions on how to do certain tasks according to your procedures. But that does not mean having to sit through 40 hours of a canned curriculum!

Develop ways to test the knowledge base of a new volunteer:

  • Ask for a demonstration of the applicant’s abilities. This might be a trial run, a portfolio of previous work, or handling a limited project with an experienced volunteer as a partner/mentor.
  • Develop a case study of a typical situation that the volunteer might encounter and ask her or him to describe how it might be handled.
  • If you have developed worksheets or quizzes as just described above, ask the applicant to complete them without watching the recordings and see if the answers are correct.

The point is to encourage, not insult, competent volunteers. You can certainly invite them to attend any training sessions that are scheduled, but be flexible in letting skilled people get to work as quickly as possible.

Be an Advocate and Be Brave

The bureaucratic obstacles we’ve been discussing here can strangle a volunteer program – and they’re not much fun for employees or clients, either. They are indicative of institutions, which need volunteers to inject some liveliness and out-of-the-box thinking. That’s why it’s popular these days to talk about “entrepreneurial” volunteers. Always remember that in every community you can find mavericks who are trailblazing totally new way of doing things, usually in all-volunteer activist groups.

Historical progression sometimes occurs through alternating shifts in philosophy and approach. Karl Marx made this concept famous through his notion of “thesis” countered by “antithesis” and then leading eventually to “synthesis.”

For the past 15 years, volunteer management has moved steadily toward the creation of administrative processes meant to counter the loose management practices of the past. In many ways, this new system is the direct antithesis of the old, intended to counter some of the problems that arose from not having procedures and rules. But, like all solutions, what we have done is not perfect. And like most solutions, it can be taken too far.

Maybe it’s time to make sure we don’t go so far in one direction that we abandon the good points of what came before. Is somewhere out there the synthesis of styles that we now need? It ought to be possible to fight both for client safety and for innovation.

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