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Drop-in Volunteers and the Benefits of Flexibility

Drop-in Volunteers and the Benefits of Flexibility

We’ve worked diligently to raise the standards of volunteer management.  But every so often we wonder whether our efforts have removed some of its spirit.  Yes, we want to assure that the best work is done and that everyone is safe while doing it. But we shouldn’t lose sight of some of the things that make volunteering different from paid employment.

Almost all of the management techniques for volunteers focus on recruiting, screening, matching and training, and then working with volunteers who accept a “position description” and fit into our service delivery processes.  Traditionally, we operate on the premise that volunteers commit time on a regular basis. But we’ve come a long way in our ability to accommodate short-term volunteers, asynchronous online service, and other types of results-oriented assignments instead of  schedule-oriented assignments.

In the past decade or so, we’ve embraced two new types of volunteering: “spontaneous” volunteering and single “days of service” volunteering.  The former occurs in reaction to an emergency, so we try to be ready for an outpouring of concerned citizens.  The latter is scheduled and planned, so we have developed ways to minimize the effort needed to coordinate such events while increasing the benefits to our agencies.

In this Points of View, we want to examine yet another effective and wonderful variation of volunteering:  the “drop-in” volunteer.

As you all realize, programs for ongoing volunteers require structure, rules and procedures, both for purposes of safety and for ensuring a good volunteer experience. Drop-in programs, however, only work if they allow volunteers to serve  without enduring interviews, applications, background checks and other entry procedures we have developed over past years.  Drop-in programs must minimize the time between when volunteers show up and when they actually begin work. Too many rules, procedures and hoops to jump through will stifle the program. 

Real-life Examples

Some of you may wonder how any organization can deal with drop-in volunteers.  But this form of service has been developed and tested by a range of organizations.  Take a look at four examples of established drop-in volunteering programs that operate in three countries:  

While informal by definition, clearly permitting volunteers to drop in does not mean lack of structure or control.  In most cases, the drop-in option operates alongside more traditional, ongoing volunteer roles, permitting a wider range of individuals to participate in the organization’s work.  An online search for the term “drop-in volunteer” will uncover even more examples and ideas for what might work in your situation.

The Drop-in Option

Drop-in volunteering isn’t for everyone.  Under what circumstances would someone want to drop in to help an organization, and why would the organization want such help? Consider the following scenarios:

  • Some people hate commitment, especially promising their time on a regular basis.  They might be willing to apply, be screened and get training – but they want the flexibility to come in when it’s convenient for them.
  • Some people find themselves unexpectedly spending time in a city without much to do: for example, business travelers forced into a longer trip to deal with a company issue or vacationers stranded because of weather. Having the chance to do something productive and charitable might be very appealing.
  • Many people have unusual work schedules that make consistent volunteering impossible. These range from long-distance truckers and flight attendants to volunteer management trainers like us!
  • Various corporations and community groups – and even organized programs such as Hands On – are looking for one-time activities that their employees/members can do.
  • In some organizations, there is always physical work to be done and, with some on-the-spot instruction, anyone can make progress to help complete a project. This includes construction (this is how Habitat for Humanity operates), sorting donated items (food banks, thrift shops), preparing meals for daily distribution, and so on.
  • Many organizations' client groups would welcome some diversion or help, even if it is occasional: casual visits, musical performances, companionship for a walk, the chance to play cards or another game, etc.  And if such diversion or help is offered via a Web site or broadcast, it’s even more possible to incorporate an unexpected talent.
  • When it comes to a big project that occurs on a regular or annual basis, can preparation tasks be done in advance and then stored until needed?  After all, it's not written in stone that table decorations have to be produced the week before the annual banquet or that Valentine’s Day cards can’t be designed in August.
  • Imagine a registered volunteer who wishes to bring someone along during a regular shift.  This might include a relative or friend in town for a visit, a college student home for the holidays, or a child or parent who is unexpectedly without a place to go for a day.  When these sorts of people surface in a volunteer’s life, the choice may be to include the visitor in volunteering or cancel the scheduled shift of service.

As you read this list, what was your reaction?

Did you think, “Wow, there are really some untapped sources of help out there!” ? Or did you sigh and think, “No way we could go this – it’s too risky and too hard”?

Making a Drop-in Effort Work: Some Caveats and Tips

Obviously, we wouldn’t be raising this topic if we didn’t think volunteer programs ought to consider drop-in volunteer opportunities. Because spontaneity can be healthy.  It can open doors to unexpected talents, skills and resources. 

But we do not mean that this would work for every assignment or for any and all clients! Below, we discuss why drop-in volunteering is not a good idea if you work with vulnerable populations, such as children or the elderly; why it may be better to steer drop-in volunteers to work with things intead of people; and how to choose tasks that require minimal instruction.

We both recognize that there are risks to living in an open society, and that we are deluding ourselves if we think we can always control it. Which is why –- when we weigh all the potential risks associated with drop-in volunteering –- we still think the benefits far outweigh any possible problems. So here are some ways to make it work:

  • Carefully think through what needs to be done and which elements of the work might be handled by someone without much training.  Task analysis is a skill you can perfect.  For example, the professional chef may need to be in charge of the kitchen and regularly-scheduled volunteers may need to do the actual cooking.  But a drop-in might chop ingredients or wrap portions for delivery.
  • We do not necessarily recommend a “drop-in anytime” policy (though it might work for some).  You can designate one or more days or periods each week when anyone can offer to drop-in and help. 
  • Drop-in efforts require the right logistics and space.  Assume that more volunteers than anticipated will show up, and plan the space requirements for them. Make sure that adequate food and materials are available. Have a back-up set of small tasks that can be quickly activated. As you all know, nothing is more discouraging than showing up to volunteer and finding that there is nothing to do. Keep track of attendance figures; you may identify trends that will help with planning requirements.
  • Drop-in volunteering may not work with some types of client groups – the vulnerable, those with needs not familiar to the general public and others who require special care or attention.  Consider what a drop-in volunteer can do that does not place any vulnerable client at risk. A drop-in volunter should not be left alone with a child or elderly person, but assisting in a big room with lots of staff and/or trained volunteers may be fine. Working with things (canned goods, paint, a DVD player) rather than people might be preferable for a drop-in volunteer.  We’d love to hear about your experiences in this area.
  • When drop-in volunteering involves use of equipment, you obviously have to consider the complexity of the equipment and the skills needed to operate it safely. You will also want to review your insurance to make sure it covers having additional people on the premises and review procedures for “enrolling” individuals so they are covered by the policy; generally, this means tracking their names and the times they are present.  If your coverage is based on an estimated number of volunteers for the year, check with your insurance provider and explain what you will be doing; the total volume of work hours probably won’t be changing, just the number of people producing it.
  • Ideally, when a person drops in to volunteer, you should get his or her name and contact information. This helps you document who participated in an activity, and  allows you to maintain contact over time.  However, you will have to decide whether or not you require knowing who the drop-in volunteer is.  If there is not a pressing or legal need to know, will you allow someone to volunteer anonymously?  For a variety of reasons, some people may not wish to identify themselves, yet are great workers.
  • Designate a volunteer or staff member to be the official greeter of any drop-in helper during the open door period. This person is key to the success of the process: she or he will welcome the newcomer, talk for a few moments to see what the person might want to do, select a task to assign and give instructions to do it properly. Good greeters set the stage and provide the feeling of “welcome” that will shape the drop-in volunteer’s experience. The greeter should be sure to thank the person at the end of the shift – and offer more volunteering opportunities, if the person wants to know about them.  At a minimum, the greeter should give the drop-in volunteer some literature that describes the range of service opportunities year-round. 
  • Publicize your willingness to accept drop-ins through your agency newsletter,  Web site (as the agencies we listed at the start of this article have done) or by hanging out a sign that says “Drop-in Volunteers Welcome.”  

Management Tradeoffs

Drop-in volunteering does raise some interesting questions. Streamlining the volunteering process can lead to tradeoffs between making it simple and easy while still developing clear management standards. If you’re an attentive volunteer resources manager, you may already have thought of such issues as:

  • How can I turn away a drop-in if I’m concerned about him or her?
  • How do I handle referrals from a third party, such as a court-ordered mandatory program?
  • What if the person doesn’t do a good job and wants to come back?

Most organizations will develop a two-tier system for involvement that allows people to choose whether they will stay in the more casual drop-in mode of involvement or move on to the higher level of ongoing volunteering. Ongoing volunteers go through a formal application, interview and orientation process, and are eligible for volunteer positions beyond the simple ones performed by the drop-ins.  An ongoing volunteer makes a greater commitment to the organization and thus qualifies for a different level of involvement and responsibility. Drop-in volunteers are invited to register as ongoing volunteers, but are not required to do so; they help when they choose to participate. 

The only rules that are the same for both drop-in and ongoing volunteers are those dealing with problem situations; the same rules of conduct and performance should apply to each.  Ongoing volunteers learn the rules as part of their orientation process; they are only explained to drop-in volunteers if they violate a rule. The key to making this work is having an "immediate suspension" policy that can be invoked when a problem arises.  Immediate suspension removes the problem volunteer while things are being sorted out.  It might, but does not necessarily, lead to termination.  In practice, this will probably work better than it sounds, unless you have an unusual number of unruly drop-in volunteers.  

For the ones who just don't "get it," we recommend handling these special cases in the old fashioned way: just say "no." Once a drop-in volunteer has demonstrated an inability or unwillingness to perform the work in a satisfactory manner, he or she should not be allowed to come back and volunteer again.  The procedure for implementing this is simple:

  • Drop-in volunteers who exhibit unsatisfactory behavior should first be cautioned, then removed from the setting ("fired") and told that they will not be accepted for further drop-in volunteering.  If they have a problem with this decision, they may discuss it with the volunteer manager at a later time. If they have been referred by another agency, that agency should be informed of this decision (without any details about why this is being done). You have an absolute right not to accept these referrals unless you have some kind of contract with the referring organization. If you do have a contract or agreement, you should make sure it allows you the right of absolute rejection of unsuitable volunteers.
  • If unsuitable volunteers return to the drop-in setting to volunteer, you simply refuse to allow them in. This means that you need someone with authority to supervise the drop-in setting, since this is what will substitute for the procedural rules that we institute in an ongoing volunteer program.

The bottom line is that you can't run a drop-in volunteering effort with all the rules and procedures of an ongoing program.  You still provide management, but of a personal rather than a procedural nature.  The worst justification for adding more rules is to deal with a few bad volunteers.  Weigh the majority of successful drop-in experiences against the occasional problems.  It’s the absence of bureaucracy that is appealing about dropping in to volunteer.  Adding more structure will only kill the drop-in effort.

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