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What Are Volunteers Good At?

What Are Volunteers Good At?

In March, Steve worked in London and took some time out to meet with Elisabeth Hoodless, the head of Community Service Volunteers (CSV), one of the largest volunteer-involving organizations in the UK.  While talking about Elisabeth’s new ideas for volunteer programs, the conversation started with a discussion that some of you might find familiar:  “What kinds of work should volunteers do?”

Volunteer program managers tend to run into this discussion in a number of different ways, often centering on the issue of whether volunteers can do some positions/work or whether only paid staff can do the work. And the usual context for this conversation is whether there are legal or other restrictions that prevent volunteers from doing some jobs. You may recognize the commonly used phrased that “volunteers should supplement, not supplant paid staff” (as if those were the only two choices).

But Steve and Elizabeth’s conversation then took a somewhat different turn from this familiar question – one, we think, that merits both further discussion and research. The question they pondered next was this: “What are volunteers good at?”  Or, to put it another way, “Is there work that unpaid volunteers do better than paid staff? Under what conditions are volunteers better than paid staff?"

In this Points of View, we consider these questions.*  And, of course, we also consider the reverse of this issue: "Is there work that paid staff do better than volunteers? Under what conditions are paid staff better than volunteers?"

Here are our opinions.

Under What Conditions Are Volunteers Better than Paid Staff?

We suggest three kinds of work where volunteers are probably better than paid staff.

1. Work that Involves Developing Trust with Doubtful Clients

Many recipients of services have no trust in the institutions that attempt to help. They have been the objects of the attentions of big institutions for much of their lives and they have occasionally suffered in that process. They do not trust the motives of those attempting to help them – they simply view them as one more cog of a large machine that may chew them up and spit them out. This distrust used to mainly afflict government institutions; it now hampers the efforts of charities as well.

Volunteers seem able to cross this barrier, forging the connection that gets the client to both accept services and to pay attention to advice and information offered. 

Volunteers can achieve this rather incredible feat simply through explaining who they are and why they are present: No one is paying me to do or say this; I am here because I care and want to help; I have no hidden agenda.

In the US, we’re seeing an interesting application of this as we conduct our 2010 Census. Collecting demographic data about the US population would seem to be an easy task – send out forms, check off boxes in response to nine questions, and the job is done.  But by the end-of-March deadline for returning forms, only 52% of all Census forms had been returned, with large cities such as New York showing response rates as low as 32%.

A major reason for this is simple: people don’t trust government intentions, even when it comes to simple forms.

With some, getting forms completed is a cumbersome and expensive process of sending paid census takers to their doors. Others, especially in large cities, are much trickier; they will make extensive efforts to evade census workers.

The solution to this comes in the form of volunteers, many from ethnic communities, who can quickly forge relationships and win enough trust to ask for cooperation.  For a description of how well this works, see “Trying to Break Down Resistance to the Census” in The New York Times (March 31, 2010),…. Here’s a sample from the article:

Illegal immigrants must be told, sometimes repeatedly, that the Census Bureau does not share information about individuals with any other government agency. And some immigrants and other New Yorkers need an explanation about why their taking a few minutes to fill out a form could translate into better schools, hospitals and transportation.

“People are afraid, but most of all, they are confused,” said Ms. Huang, 25, one of about a dozen volunteers from the MinKwon Center for Community Action who spent seven days going door to door in Flushing, where Mr. Lai lives, to talk to Chinese and Korean residents about the count.

What applies to the census applies to other areas as well.  Management guru Stephen Covey once made the observation, “People want to know that you care before they care what you know.”

Volunteers are much better at establishing this than paid staff, and are thus much better at establishing relationships with mistrustful clients.

2. Work that Involves Translating Information So that Clients Understand It

There are two aspects of this, one a very direct and obvious one and the other a bit more subtle.

First, volunteers give organizations the ability to involve people who speak the vast numbers of languages now faced by charities. For instance, according to Elizabeth, 452 languages are commonly spoken in London on an average day. No charity or government program can afford to hire enough staff with the language capacity to communicate with all members of our increasingly diverse communities.  Volunteers offer the only hope in this situation.

In a very direct way, volunteer translators offer organizations the simple ability to talk with those they are trying to help.

The second way that volunteers offer translation skills is less obvious but we think somewhat more interesting. Information conveyed to clients is only useful if the client understands it, and in many fields the jargon used by professionals has little or no meaning to the average person.

We’ll use health care as a way to illustrate this. Doctors, nurses and other health care professionals speak a language of their own.  If you’ve ever been a patient in a hospital, you know the bewildering feeling of being lost in data that you don’t understand and that no one seems able to explain in a way that is meaningful to you.

Douglas Bolon, writing in Hospital Topics (Vol. 73, 1995), noted:

Patients are increasingly intimidated by technology, medical personnel, and the bureaucratic structure present in contemporary hospitals. Volunteers cut through this technical environment and communicate with patients on a personal one-to-one basis. Communication with volunteers permits patients to freely express their needs and concerns in a relaxed, caring and informal environment. Parkum [another researcher], using a sample of patients in six different hospitals, found that patients are more satisfied by volunteer services than the related formal patient support programs.

And Susan Quine and Yuk-Fun Chan of the University of Sydney offer this description of the work of MIPS (Medicine Information Persons) who were recruited to help senior patients use medications wisely:

The MIPs are peer educators. They are not intrusive and are accessible in the community. They are also flexible of their time so that older people can have more time and are more willing to talk to them. Thus, they are reliable and older people in the community trust them more easily compared to health workers.

Although the hospital staff, nurses or pharmacists, have explained clearly how to take medicines, the patients may not remember what has been said exactly.  Also, the verbal information from hospital staff usually uses much medical jargon, and health service providers are usually busy.  Thus, patients may not understand them, but dare not ask questions. The MIPs…are actually filling in the information and supportive gap between patients and health workers. (Education and Ageing, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1998)

Helpful advice is only good if it is understood. Volunteers have a much greater ability than paid staff to make sure that when good information is offered it is actually received and acted upon by the listener.

3. Work that Benefits from the “Luxury of Focus”

Paid staff must find a way to devote time to all of the demands of their jobs. If they carry a caseload of clients, they need to schedule time with each of them equitably. If they deal with the public, they have to pay attention to each request or need. Further, no matter what their primary job, employees also have to squeeze in the extra tasks demanded all the time, from a request for a report to attending less-than-useful committee meetings. What this means is that no single client or single project can get an employee’s undivided attention all the time, or even for a good bit of time. And it is only human that the things least interesting or enjoyable to the employee will be last on the agenda. 

Not so for volunteers. They have the option to focus intensively on a particular issue or client, or to actively seek work that is interesting and enjoyable to them – even to the exclusion of extraneous tasks. Volunteers can specialize, even if they “only” serve for two hours a week. This is a luxury of focus, of concentration, and time rarely justifiable for employees. Volunteers can actually be recruited specifically to provide individualized attention to one task. You can even recruit three volunteers to work with one client, if necessary.

The result? A task or assignment that a paid staff member can devote, say, 30 minutes a week to can suddenly get two complete hours of attention from a volunteer who truly wants to do that very thing. That means four times the attention than would otherwise be possible, and from a motivated person, too.

Under What Conditions are Paid Staff Better than Volunteers?

We suggest three possibilities here as well.

1. Work that Involves Substantial Training Requirements

Volunteers are more eager to do work than they are to spend time being trained to do the work. Increasingly, new volunteers are resisting lengthy and difficult training.

This obviously has some implications for volunteer positions where the prospective volunteers are not likely to possess the required skills. Both emergency medical services and firefighting organizations are already dealing with this issue.  Each requires extensive time commitments for training before the volunteer is allowed to actually perform any work. The result has been increased resistance, especially since both of these critical activities have faced substantial increases in required training in recent years.

Brunet, deBoer and McNamara suggest that: may be that there are some levels of fire protection that simply cannot be attained by volunteer departments. Especially in difficult environments, the amount of training required may be so great and the management of so many part-time volunteers so time-consuming that volunteers would have to devote themselves to their departments nearly full-time.  (Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, March 2001)

The obvious solution is hiring paid staff who are already skilled or who will be paid to attend training.  Volunteers may still participate, but not in the primary work if they are not willing to spend the time learning what is necessary.

2. Work that Absolutely Must Be Done at a Set Time

We truly believe that there is no skill in the world that an organization cannot find someone to donate, if it can be flexible as to when that service is given. The greatest experts in the world all volunteer at some time or another, especially when asked to contribute their skills to meaningful projects, but almost always need to juggle their time commitments.  As an obvious example, a mission to provide medical care in Haiti cannot be scheduled before doctors and nurses who want to volunteer are cleared for travel and time away.  

In the same way, if an organization runs a lunch program for seniors, then volunteers must be available at lunch time. There’s no way around that schedule requirement. Ditto for any position that is “open” to the public at set times, such as a charity thrift store, a museum information desk, or an all-night crisis hotline. The less wiggle room for when a volunteer can serve, the fewer the people who will be able to commit to a set shift. 

Conversely, paying a wage permits the employer to dictate the employee’s work schedule. When the paid worker accepts a job, she or he is informed of the hours of operation and must be at work at those times.  So, if you absolutely need to provide services at times demanded by the situation, a paid worker may be the best option.

3. Work in Which Turnover is a Major Impediment to Success

Some work requires consistency of effort, and may even require total continuity of personnel.

An example of this is work with a difficult client, one who is fragile emotionally.  Establishing a connection with this person may be difficult; maintaining it depends totally on that established personal relationship.

Turnover in the person working with the client does not merely take the situation back to “zero;” it actually makes it even harder for the next person in line to re-establish the connection. After all, having been deserted and abandoned yet one more time, the client has even less reason to trust whoever is next in line asking for attention.

It’s important to note that volunteers can provide this consistency and, in many organizations, the volunteers actually demonstrate fewer turnovers than paid staff. But one can argue that in some cases, trends in volunteering are headed away from long-term commitments that may be needed in work with some clients.

The solution, again, may lie in hiring paid staff (and paying them enough to keep them, but that’s another problem).

So, Who Does What?

What’s important about the arguments we’ve just made is that they have almost nothing to do with whether or not a volunteer is capable of doing as good (or better) a job as someone who is paid. Of course, we are talking about the right volunteer who matches a position. A salary does not guarantee competence or commitment – and occasionally we put the wrong employee into the wrong job. But if an individual has the relevant competence and meets commitments, he or she will bring those qualities to everything, including a paid job and volunteering.

Interestingly enough, the real answer often lies in a volunteer and staff team set-up, with each contributing something useful to the work. That’s why we tend to prefer the term “partnering with” rather than “supervising” volunteers.  By partnering with each other, we can expect both employees and volunteers to do their best; each will contribute from a different starting point of expectations, and each will be affected by the perceptions of clients and others. 

It isn’t a competition. It’s synergy. Ideally, melding the two perspectives to work as a team delivers service of greater quality than could be delivered by either operating alone.

* Coincidentally, Susan J. Ellis, the co-author of this Points of View, has just released the third edition of her book, From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Successful Volunteer Involvement, which devotes the entire first chapter to the unique benefits an organization gains by assigning volunteers to certain activities.

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