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“Is There a Template I Can Use?” and Other Questions Asked Too Often

“Is There a Template I Can Use?” and Other Questions Asked Too Often

We both believe strongly in the principle that if you ask the wrong question (especially one that is vague and broad) you will get the wrong answer (equally unfocused). On the other hand, asking the right question (especially one that specifically reflects what you need to know) can direct you to all sorts of resources.

Because volunteer resources managers so often turn to the Energize Web site ( to find resources, Susan gets a lot of e-mails and phone calls that go like this:

Colleague:  Can you please tell me where I can find what to put into my volunteer handbook?

Susan:        You mean something that is basically already written that you can use?

Colleague:   Yes that would be great.

Susan:        But how can something someone else wrote cover what you need to say for your organization?

Colleague:  I just dont know what to say but I know Im supposed to have a handbook. I need a template.

Susan:       Are you sure you need a handbook? What are you trying to accomplish? Welcoming new volunteers? Setting out rules and expectations? Will you print this on paper or put it online? (remember it needs to be updated over time, right?) Are you trying to match an existing handbook for employees? Are you talking to current volunteers about what they would have liked to know at the time they first became a volunteer? Does your organization have special legal or risk issues or work with a population group that poses unique challenges? How would someone in another setting know any of this?

Colleague:   Er, ah, I really was just hoping someone else had a good handbook I could see.

It’s understandable that overworked volunteer resources managers look for quick and easy ways to do things. One approach is to discover what others seem to be doing successfully and then use those practices or templates – recognizing that “using” implies a range of actions from directly copying the methods of others to thoughtfully using them as a starting point for creating what is best for your own situation. We’re most likely to look for pre-developed models in volunteer management functions that seem administrative. For example:

  • Volunteer application forms and position descriptions
  •  Volunteer handbooks and other orientation/induction materials
  •  Policies, especially those related to risk management
  •  Our own job descriptions as a volunteer resources manager
  • Training ideas
  •  Satisfaction surveys and exit interview questions

There are a few troubling consequences to this cookie-cutter approach.

First, the frequent search for templates too often reflects a lack of confidence. If you’ve never developed a volunteer application form before, you may feel that you need to follow some external model. But you know what you want to learn about new applicants. Maybe someone else finds it useful to ask specifics about schools attended, degrees or certificates earned, etc. Does this matter to your setting? Maybe you should ask about what the prospective volunteer likes to do in his or her spare time, for example, because that might reveal more interesting things about the applicant’s personality and interests. Trust yourself! Go ahead and ask something no one else has ever put on an application before and see if it works for you.

Second, Rob frequently remarks that if we get a bunch of volunteer resources managers in a room together, the default topics of conversation are not about dealing with people (the essence of the volunteer resources manager’s role) but about risk assessment, screening, policies, processes, etc. Nobody has yet to disagree with Rob on this. Perhaps we’re making it worse by all trying to copy the way someone else does things without any real focus on our volunteers as individuals.

Third, a template-oriented mindset risks stifling creativity. It’s indicative of an approach that seeks shortcuts to complex issues. We have to become more creative as we deal with  shrinking budgets, rising needs, changes in the way people want to support good causes, and increasing time pressure that make us all feel we can give less and less. It’s our role to lead volunteer-involving organizations towards innovation, not just doing more of the same.

But You Still Need to Write a Handbook, Right?

You may agree with all the philosophy above. But if you are the colleague with the immediate task of creating a handbook, what should you do?

By all means, gather examples of how others have approached a volunteer management activity, not as something to copy but for inspiration and good ideas. Don’t limit yourself to only finding handbooks for volunteers in similar settings or to ones only for volunteers. You can get a much better perspective by looking at how others in a range of organizations have approached their employee manuals. The only way to get new insights for our field is to look outside it for different solutions and then adapt those ideas to our needs.

Next, be sure to talk to the people who will be using your new form or guide and ask them what they want and need. It’s amazing how often we plan things for volunteers instead of with them.

Now you are ready to answer some important questions about the purpose of the material you will create:

  • What will it help someone do?
  • What tone do I want to convey with this material? How do I want the user to feel while reading it?
  • What organizational requirements does the material need to address?
  • What priority information needs to be here vs. what might be made available for further access online or elsewhere?
  • How long (or short!) should this be to make sure it is read and used?
  • What format will work best for my audience? Do I need more than one format option?
  • Who can help me write it, test it, and finalize it?

Once you have drafted the contents, ask these questions again for each section.

This may sound time consuming because it is. But think of the time you might waste searching for someone else’s work to copy! And once you’ve created material that gives or obtains the information you and your volunteers most need, it will become a tool that integrates into how you successfully engage volunteers.

One more thing: After you have done the hard work to create a useful manual, form, or other resource, why not share it with others? So when colleagues search for templates (for the right reasons, of course), you’ve added more materials to browse? You can do this in various ways:

  • Organize material exchanges through your local professional network. On the meeting announcement or agenda, indicate that month’s “material swap”topic, such as “application forms.”Then all attendees bring their volunteer application forms and everyone can look through the set during the pre- or post-meeting coffee time. Or your association can create a Web area for this purpose and members can post at will.
  • Post your items to OurSharedResources, a site set up for this purpose by Better Impact.
  • Post items though the documents-sharing function of the discussion forums hosted on Yahoo: CyberVPM, UKVPMs, or OzVPM. Note that these groups tend not to allow files to be shared via their e-mail functions (in order to protect members from viruses, malware etc.), so always use the groups’ file-sharing function on their web page.

Broader Issues

In writing this Points of View, we realized that the search for templates is connected to other, quite important issues. For example, when volunteer resources managers propose a new type of volunteer role, why do senior managers so often ask “who else has done this before?” The question implies the wish to do what others do, not to be innovative. How do we get our executives to empower volunteer services to test the boundaries, not always stay in them?

Then there is the current desire to benchmark accomplishments, finding ways to compare and contrast the work of one organization to others. Does this stimulate experimentation or maintain the status quo?

With these issues in mind, we’ll continue this exploration in next issue’s Points of View essay. Please add your comments below and we will incorporate your thinking into Part 2.

To add or view comments

Thu, 01/15/2015

Hi, Susan and Rob,

I enjoyed “Is There a Template I Can Use?” and Other Questions Asked Too Often.” 

I’ve been in the field now for close to 30 years. (YIKES!) I just took a positon with the Northeast Indiana Radio Reading Service (NEIRRS) at Allen County Public Library, as  manager of a radio reading service where 150 volunteers read newspapers (live) and other publications that are recorded and broadcast or streamed for individuals who have reading disabilities. I love it and it matches my skillset well! (I was the volunteer services manager here, 15 years ago and now I’m back!)

I need to redo the volunteer handbook. The current one is outdated and sounds militant and not practical in communicating pertinent information to volunteers. So what did I do?  I asked other reading services for theirs. (There are several reading services in PA, Susan -- and Rob, National Talking Express is in the UK.) I was thinking maybe there are some “nuts and bolts” of audio reading services that I needed to include.  (Something I am learning as it’s new to the “industry.”)

Well…after glancing at a few, I concluded, yes there may be some info. that I may be able to glean, but not a great deal,  because we are all so different!

Your column was spot on! The questions about the purpose of the material was perfect!

Thank you for for being helpful to me after all these years!