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Taking the Frustration Out of Volunteering

Do you often end up frustrated because your special event volunteers aren’t doing what you want them to? Are these volunteers voicing frustration because they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing? If so, maybe it’s time to take another look at your written job instructions — if you have any — and check them for clarity.

I found out the hard way just how frustrating it can be to volunteer for an event and have no idea of what you’re supposed to be doing. Through a service organization I belong to, I volunteered to help with a dart tournament sponsored by a nonprofit agency. The slot where I signed my name said something about supplying the dart players with water.

Although I know little about playing darts, I did wonder why dart players need water delivered to them — but, what the heck, it sounded like a pretty straight forward job, and I was sure someone would fill in the details once I arrived at the event.

Was I ever wrong! Once at the event, I was told that my assignment had been changed to keeping track of which teams won each round. A staff person then handed me a badly reproduced piece of paper with the names of the various teams listed on it. I was told that someone from each winning team would come to me and tell me which team had won.

Wrong again! I could see that there were numerous teams playing, but only one or two teams were telling me if they had won or lost. About that time another staff person came around, looked at the paper I had been given earlier, and asked how I could possibly keep track of the winners with that limited information. He then gave me another sheet of paper which listed the various brackets, telling me to write the numbers of the winning teams next to the bracket they had won — only he took the paper on which the team numbers and names were written with him.

To make a long story short, by the end of my volunteer shift, I was plenty frustrated. But the experience did start me thinking about whether or not my instructions to volunteers are clear enough. Having worked in public relations and fundraising for a number of years, I have had the opportunity to work with volunteers on special events such as art fairs, auctions, picnics and open houses. For most of these events, I haven’t held a formal volunteer training session since everyone’s time is such a premium. But I do write a brief job description for each job.

It can be one sentence long: “Greet the guests and have them sign the guest book.”

Or the job description can contain multiple steps:

  1. Answer the phone.
  2. Fill out the pledge form.
  3. Ask the caller how he/she wants to pay, etc.

I send the job description, along with any other special instructions, and the name and phone number of a contact person to the volunteer before the event.

So far, this procedure has worked well, eliminating a lot of the frustration for the volunteers and for staff members alike. Just the same, I still plan to monitor the process through feedback from my volunteers to be sure they are walking away from an event with a positive experience.

About the Contributor: Marlene Salley

A community of aspiring women – that’s the tagline for St. Catherine Residence in Milwaukee where I work part-time in the development department. SCR’s mission of providing safe, affordable, supportive housing for low income women meshes with what attracted me to AAUW’s mission.

Born and raised in Iowa, I moved to Racine with my husband and two sons in 1980. My professional background is in journalism, fund development and education. I have been a news director at a two-year college, a Field Representative for the University of Iowa’s Upward Bound Project, an adjunct communication instructor at Gateway Technical College, a reporter for various newspapers and have worked in development for several nonprofits.

I have a BA in English from the University of Iowa and an Advanced Certificate in Technical Communication from Gateway Technical College. Although I currently live in Pleasant Prairie, I still belong to the Racine AAUW branch where I’ve been publicity chair – including webmaster and social media coordinator – for a number of years.

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