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Practical Tips for Planning Group-Oriented Volunteer Projects

Let’s say your agency is geared up for a big service day, National Youth Service Day, for example, and when the day arrives, only a few volunteers show up and someone forgot to buy paintbrushes. Sound familiar? Based on situations like this, some would wonder if bringing in a group of volunteers for a day is worth the hassle. This article is a no nonsense approach to help you make the most of those short-term, group projects.

Utilizing groups of volunteers can be very beneficial for non-profit agencies if managed properly. Many times, agencies relate stories like the one above. The best rule of thumb is to INVEST THE TIME to plan. Here are some questions to ask yourself.

  • Who are the volunteers?
  • Is the work/situation appropriate to the age group?
  • What is the nature and scope of the project? (Make sure the work is safe and do-able — not too difficult; make sure it’s not too much to accomplish in the time allotted, nor too little)
  • What supplies are necessary? (Hint: ask for donations)
  • Are restrooms available for volunteers?
  • Is your agency providing snacks or water for volunteers?
  • Are there any preparations ahead of time your agency needs to make?

Don’t “assume” anything. For example, make sure the electrical outlets work and the commode flushes. Do you have toilet paper? Don’t ease in to the mindset, “Oh, I will grab the ladder out of the closet once everyone gets here that day.” It could very well be that the ladder is in poor condition, or is no longer there.

The second rule of thumb is COMMUNICATE with all relevant parties, whether they are directly involved or not. On your notification list might be the Neighborhood or Homeowners Association if you are painting a home for an elderly citizen, for example. This will avoid a representative coming over to question why all “these people” are on the property. Inform them ahead of time the plans for the day, including the name of the organization(s) volunteering. In addition, make sure volunteers know what to expect. Communicate the following information to them or a designated group contact person. To save time, do a “mass” email.

  • Time to report to the agency and approximate end time
  • Directions to the project
  • Supplies (are they bringing some of their own, or is the agency supplying everything?)
  • Parking and bathroom information
  • Special instructions for youth (do they need their own adult supervisor, and if so, how many adults per youth? Is there a minimum age requirement?)
  • Liability waiver information
  • After hours contact information (what if a volunteer has a personal emergency and cannot attend — who do they call?)
  • “In case of rain” instructions
  • Any special instructions that are specific to your agency or the project (sensitive populations, etc.)

One helpful tip for making sure you have an adequate number of volunteers is to ask for a preliminary head count from the volunteer group about 10 days in advance. Tell the group contact person that you will need confirmation of that number a few days before the project. If numbers change dramatically, the group contact person should notify you as soon as possible so you have time to make alternate arrangements.

Be sure all staff/board/regular volunteers/others at your agency are apprised of the date and time of the project. For instance, does Maintenance Personnel need to open secured storage closets? Which staff members need to be in attendance at the project to help supervise the volunteers? Who is gathering supplies? Food/soft drinks? Do you want Board Members to attend? If so, what will be their role? Make these expectations clear.

Things to do AT THE PROJECT:

  • Designate a supervisor from your agency
  • Have that person introduce him or herself
  • Welcome and introduce volunteers (nametags are an added touch)
  • Give a brief overview of your agency
  • Overview of the project; explain why it’s important and how it will impact the agency or the clients you serve
  • Bathroom location
  • Food/snacks
  • Cover safety points
  • Supervise the volunteers and gently correct if needed. If the volunteer feels as if he/she is being scolded, he/she is not likely to volunteer for your agency in the future (nor anyone else for that matter).

AFTERWARDS, obtain feedback from the volunteers. Gather them in a group and talk about their experiences as appropriate. Discuss in more detail how the project impacts the larger community. This could also be a time for your agency to make a pitch to recruit some regular volunteers. Evaluate the project from the agency standpoint. What went well or not-so-well? What would you do differently next time? Keep notes.

Be sure to thank volunteers, whether it be by thank you note or a letter sent to the group leader(s). Certificates of appreciation could be handed out on site as an alternative. Taking photographs and later sending them to the volunteers is an effective recognition and retention tool. Even better, send a few photos and brief story to the local newspaper. It’s “free press” for your agency as well.

Managing group volunteer projects can be a challenge, but well worth it and rewarding in the end. Tremendous impacts can be seen in a short amount of time. Anything from clothing sorted, rooms painted or light repairs, to landscaping, tree and flower planting — they all add up. At the end of the day, you can look back and see a big difference. What you may not see immediately is the positive impact you’ve had on volunteers. A good experience at your agency will keep them volunteering for years to come.

About the Contributor: Shandran Jones Thornburgh

Shandran Thornburgh is the Volunteer & Guest Services Director at Virginia Living Museum.

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