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Scott Martin

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Participative Volunteer Management: The Emerging Paradigm? (Part 2)

Editor's note: This is a two-part article

Volunteer Empowerment

The truth is that we really don’t trust our volunteers all that much. Yes, we are very grateful when they do the jobs we have designed and carry them out in the exact way we intended. We take every opportunity to thank them for what they do, but this is not empowerment. Empowerment is allowing volunteers a say in programmatic decision-making, giving them an active role in designing their own work and granting them the permission to exercise independent judgment and initiative. These are all things we are very reluctant to grant, not because we are power hungry people, but because this is how we have been taught it has to be. Might it be possible, however, that we put an unrealistic burden upon ourselves when we think that that we can keep bad things from happening by controlling everything that volunteers do? Could it be possible that a more effective strategy might be to create an environment of teamwork where everyone is responsible for risk management, practicing self-control and acting as a check on one another? If the last 40 years have been about the empowerment of the professional, volunteer resources manager, the next 40 years must be about the empowerment of the volunteer

Sharing Decision-Making with Volunteers

Shared decision-making is a cornerstone of participative volunteer management. It is a decision-making process that attempts to involve everyone with a stake in an outcome. How might volunteer resources managers share decision-making power with volunteers? Here are a few examples:

  1. Ask volunteers “how can we do this better?”
  2. Install a volunteer suggestion box.
  3. Respond promptly to volunteer’s suggestions, concerns, etc.
  4. Create “quality circles” of volunteers in the same position or program to advise management on how client service can be improved.
  5. Create a “council” to represent the interests of volunteers and have the officers serve on the volunteer program’s management team
  6. Have volunteer representation on the organization’s Board of Directors.
  7. Create short-term, task forces made up of volunteers and staff to work on specific management issues or problems.
  8. Have volunteers assist with employee appraisal and on employment interview panels.
  9. Make decisions only after getting input from very volunteer who will be affected.
  10. Share information with volunteers that impacts upon their work such as progress against outcomes, budget status, etc.
  11. Foster an environment of independent thinking.
  12. Include examples of alternative approaches in volunteer training.
  13. Really do conduct exit interviews with your volunteers and listen to what they have to say.
  14. Teach and practice consensus (general agreement) decision-making.
  15. Explain to volunteers how you arrived at the decisions you make.

Creating Self-Directive Volunteer Roles

The dictionary defines self-direction as “directed or guided by one’s self.” A major goal of participative volunteer management is to create more self-directive modes of volunteer involvement. This does not mean that we want to jettison all of our traditional, prescriptive volunteer positions. There will always be people who don’t want to be self-directive or do not enjoy working in empowered groups. But to accommodate the increasing number of volunteers who are self-directive, programs will have to look beyond positions designed without volunteer input.

One promising structure is what might be called the “customized volunteer role.” Rather than asking a volunteer to choose between existing positions created by the volunteer resources manager and staff, this new approach starts with the volunteer’s skills and interests and then proceeds to create a unique role that will best utilize those skills. Many volunteer resources managers are already customizing roles, particularly for high-skilled, short-term volunteers, but the process can be applied even more broadly. Volunteers in customized roles are treated very much like consultants. They develop a work plan in concert with the manager, agree on deliverables, set up check points and negotiate the degree of self-direction they will enjoy.

Another promising structure is the self-directive or self-managing volunteer team. A self-directive volunteer team (SDVT) is a group of volunteers who have the day-to-day responsibility for managing their own work with a minimum of outside supervision. While working in groups is nothing new for volunteerism, true SDVTs are actually quite rare. A SDVT is different from a work group in that it takes on many of the functions that would normally be done by the volunteer resources manager. Management may set the goal for a SDVT, but the team decides how to get there. SDVTs develop their own plan of action, schedule work, perform the tasks, supervise each other and evaluate their results. SDVTs require a lot of training and attention in the beginning stages; although later they become virtually self-managing. SDVTs make a lot of sense for overwhelmed volunteer resources managers who want to engage even more volunteers and at higher skill levels.

Participation, Democracy and Organizational Transformation

Participative management and volunteer empowerment are more than just strategies for keeping organizationally-based volunteerism relevant in a day of increasing individualism. They are affirmations of timeless American values such as freedom, equality and the democratic process. You would think that no organization could be more democratic than a voluntary non-profit. The reality is that becoming a volunteer in many of our organizations today is actually a lot like joining the army - and we all know who the general is!

There is another way: volunteer resources managers and volunteers working together as partners. We can become the change agents for the democratizing of our organizations. A new kind of volunteer involvement is the key and participative volunteer management can show us the way.

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