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Transferable Skills: What Makes Us Invaluable?

Transferable Skills: What Makes Us Invaluable?

In December 2007, Susan Ellis’ Hot Topic on the Energize Web site was “Helper Triage: Volunteer Management in Emergencies.” The topic was sparked by the aftermath of the recent oil spill in San Francisco Bay when, once again, the authorities seemed unprepared to handle spontaneous volunteers. The key factor was the lack of a designated volunteer coordinator to take charge.

When Ellis first approached this theme in her October 2001 Hot Topic, “A Volunteerism Perspective on the Days after the 11th of September,” many of the volunteer program managers in New York City took offense. They reacted to her observation of the lack of volunteer management skills on that day of terrorism as an attack on them – which, she hastened to emphasize, it was not. Several of the respondents to the September 11th theme spoke about how they felt incapable of helping in this sort of emergency because they knew nothing about what to do in a disaster. Too, the person put in charge of volunteers in NYC at that time was a young business major with no background in either disaster response or volunteerism. All of which begs the question: What exactly is needed at times like this?

What Do We Know?

One of the defining features of a profession is that it's knowledge base and practical skills can be applied in any setting. A lawyer is a lawyer whether practicing in the District Attorney’s office, a big corporation or a rape crisis center. A teacher can educate school children in a public or private school, on a military base, on a movie set or on a cruise ship. In other words, professional skills are transferable.

When an organization hires a volunteer program manager, we’ve long known that it’s more sensible to attract someone with experience in successful volunteer involvement (even in a different setting) than to hire someone who is familiar with the organization’s services but has no knowledge of how to work with volunteers. The former needs orientation and support in order to understand the new organization. But the latter needs training in how to do the job altogether – training that probably no one in the organization is qualified to provide.

So what’s special about volunteer management that makes us different from other managers or human resources personnel?

Let's consider the following categories of abilities, which we would argue are often unique to volunteer management: Task Analysis; Interviewing and Screening; Setting a Welcoming Tone; Forms, Record keeping and Scheduling; Networking; Making Do; and Imagining Beyond Money.

Task Analysis
Anyone can create a job description for a full-time employee, mainly because such documents use broad brush strokes to outline the goals, functions and major responsibilities of each position, without many specifics. This makes sense because, over time, if the right employee is hired to fill the job, s/he will play a big part in fleshing out the activities needed to accomplish the annual goals. Employee job descriptions are also written for fewer people, all of whom will share the basic qualifications, education and experience to be hired.

It’s a lot harder to craft assignments for volunteers. Here are a few reasons why:

  • When someone is giving a few hours a week, it’s necessary to be very specific as to how that time will be spent.
  • The type of work that fits into a smaller timeframe is also different from the type of work that is common in a paid staff environment, where many workers operate more as “generalists” than their official title would indicate.
  • Many different people may be sharing the same volunteer position description – people of diverse ages, backgrounds and perspectives. So the work needs to be adaptable.
  • The assignment may vary according to schedule, so that a volunteer in the morning may need to do something different than one in the afternoon.

The secret is task analysis: breaking a big job into many smaller, discrete pieces of work that can be delegated to a range of people at various times.

In order to utilize volunteers well, a staff member must first understand what needs to be done. This may seem obvious, but it’s not. New employees, for example, will find it hard to share their work with volunteers if they are not yet sure what they are expected to do themselves. Similarly, a new project may not be fully defined for anyone. But the biggest hurdle is that most people are too close to their jobs to see the pieces!

Social workers, probation officers and others with case loads of clients may feel that everything they do requires their formal professional qualifications. In other words, if they are doing it now, then it must be done by someone like them. It takes the perspective of a volunteer program manager to view it all through a different lens. These “professionals” need to apply their specific knowledge to determining what needs to be done, but much of that work could easily be done by someone else since much of it won’t require the same “professional” skills in order to actually implement.

Overall, the most successful volunteer managers are creative in looking at tasks and determining different ways that they might be shared among a diverse group of potential workers. This is not a skill that is readily obtainable in any other type of work.

Interviewing and Screening
Those who work only with employees focus on formal credentials. Volunteer program managers value credentials, too, but also look at the essence of the person – what each prospective volunteer might offer, apart from what’s on a resume. We deal in potential.  

Compared to paid HR managers, volunteer managers have vastly more experience in dealing with multiple generations and unexpected or unique skills, much less the exceedingly narrow range that most program staff encounter. This enables us to avoid the kind of “typecasting” that can inhibit the recognition of real potential, even from seemingly unlikely candidates.

For young people, volunteering is a way to rise to the level of their competence, not their age limitations. For people without a university degree, volunteering permits them to demonstrate and apply their life-learning skills. For seniors, volunteering lets them exercise mental skills even if their physical ones may have diminished. For ethnic communities, volunteering may allow them to exercise informal qualifications not at all apparent from a glance at their formal credentials.

In a crisis, one of the things that we do that seems especially important is turning away inappropriate applicants. Unlike those who hire employees, who treat unsuccessful candidates civilly at best (or just don’t even communicate their decision, at worst), we understand our obligation to be appreciative of any offer of help. We do this out of care to nurture the volunteer instinct for our entire community. Our attitude is simple: just because someone is not suited for our setting, doesn’t mean s/he can’t serve a different organization. So we accept the best volunteers for us, but we take care to refer unaccepted applicants to other opportunities. Hopefully, by taking the time to consider them, we leave even those we have rejected with goodwill towards our organization.

In San Francisco, volunteers got angry when turned away because they interpreted this as de-valuing their offer to help. A competent volunteer coordinator would have explained the situation and made an effort to refer concerned citizens elsewhere.

All of this was explained more than 40 years ago by our field’s visionary, Ivan Scheier, when he coined the phrase “the People Approach.” Volunteer involvement is about working from the potential within all people to make a contribution, and thus focuses on finding ways to be inclusive. This is contrary to the thinking employed in hiring paid staff, which mostly involves eliminating possible candidates until you reach the sole survivor of an arduous process that is more designed to exclude than include.

Setting a Welcoming Tone
Everyone prefers to work in a welcoming atmosphere. Unfortunately, many managers of paid personnel are not great at setting the tone for a pleasant place in which to be productive. It’s almost mandatory for a leader of volunteers!

We are adept at smiling and saying thank you – two elements of volunteer management that are easy to take for granted. Because we’re used to volunteers appearing throughout the day, we greet people all the time, not just while taking off our coats in the morning.

We also pay attention to the human dynamics of a situation. Is the newcomer treated pleasantly by everyone? What does it take to integrate the newcomer into the group of existing volunteers and paid staff? What happens when it’s time to say good-bye at the end of the volunteer’s shift? And so on.

A friendly climate, which can also be energetic and busy, is what we consider part of “informal, daily recognition” of volunteers. We know that volunteers will come back if they enjoyed the setting. Even in a crisis, people want to be seen, which is what true recognition is all about.

Disaster settings might not seem like the sort of environment that could be “welcoming,” but in fact the opposite tends to be true. Given the inherently tense atmosphere, the long hours and the difficulty of the work, burnout and compassion fatigue can swiftly set in unless someone works on caring for the caregivers – whether paid or volunteer. Volunteer managers are much more attuned to focusing on improving the climate of the work setting, making it more likely that those who provide assistance do not themselves become additional victims.

Forms, Record keeping and Scheduling
It may not be the favorite part of the job, but every volunteer program manager understands the need to keep track of basic information about volunteers. But this goes way beyond simply tracking names, addresses and telephone numbers. Record keeping about volunteers is not maintenance of a mailing list! It begins with developing a useful volunteer application form. If you currently use software to track volunteer contributions, take a look at it and you might realize that it is easily adaptable to tracking a much wider variety of things – people, equipment, etc. It is perfectly designed to help coordinate and record a range of partnership activities.

We’re also skilled at jigsaw puzzle schedules, fitting the right volunteers into available time slots and sequencing work and people properly. While this may seem like a simple skill, imagine the real conditions in a disaster – nothing is in the “right place,” resources may be lacking or inaccessible from normal sources, supplies and equipment must be pieced together from a variety of locations and providers. No matter what the original plan, things will not be as simple as envisioned. Someone will need to weave things together from diverse situations.

Although our professional associations struggle to be viable, the fact remains that volunteer program managers do know other leaders of volunteers, often from diverse settings (since volunteers are indeed everywhere). Some professional networking is based on isolation – the desire to communicate with someone else who “gets it” when it comes to supporting volunteers. Other networking is driven by an exchange of knowledge and resources both to develop our own skills and also to expand our programs.

In an emergency, there are few other professions so tied to people in such a wide range of settings. This means we can call on people to assist in countless ways. Even in a small community, a leader of volunteers has a circle of contacts that includes healthcare, justice, the arts, education, recreation, emergency response, environmentalism and on and on. This can be invaluable to locating special skills and materials.

Making Do
Disaster situations tend to be resource poor, especially in the early stages. Professionals who are accustomed to good support services and an abundance of equipment can find this especially frustrating. No volunteer program, on the other hand, ever suffered from a surplus of resources. Volunteer coordinators are accustomed to making do with what is available and not becoming frustrated when the system seems to lack a few essentials. Scrounging for work supplies that others take for granted is the normal mode of operation for many volunteer programs. “Improvisation” will be the name of the game, another skill requisite for a good volunteer manager.

Imagining Beyond Money
Finally, people whose main focus is employees always begin any plan with, “What’s the budget?” They consider how they can stretch their money to pay for people and things. When the money runs out, so does the work. And while money is useful, it tends to become a limiting factor as organizations imagine that the only way to obtain something is to buy it. The notion of actually asking others to simply give support is quite foreign to this way of thinking.

Volunteer coordinators, however, start with, “What needs to be done and who might I find to agree to do it?” As we all know, volunteers are not free. But when services are donated, especially in an emergency, there is no limit to the potential of what might be accomplished. Rather than being limited by lack of funds, we are freed by our imagination and willingness to ask for help.

This is a powerful starting point for any project or crisis response.


We'd like to think that all of these abilities are unique to and necessary for effective volunteer program development and leadership. We’re not implying that every leader of volunteers is equally competent in all these areas, but we do believe that these skills are inherent in the job and, ideally, are keys to success. Add our professional organizing skills to the mix, and we’re invaluable.

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