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Michael Lee Stills

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Volunteers 'A La Carte'

In the 2003 April-June issue of eVolunteerism, Steve McCurley and Susan Ellis ask the question, "Are We Using the Wrong Model for Volunteer Work?" As they correctly point out, many of us fall into the trap of building programs around the model of Long-Term Volunteers. Essentially we have been building programs that model paid positions. This is understandable in many regards because much of the literature on volunteer management focuses on building employee-like programs. Interestingly, as we have become more sensitive to the legal implications of volunteer involvement, we turn to our Human Resource and Legal Departments for advice. They, in turn, focus on what they know best and their advice often sounds just like employment law. I wonder if this may be one of the roots leading us to refer to volunteers as "unpaid staff"?

Thankfully Steve and Susan ask us to reexamine our approach and consider thinking of volunteers as something like consultants. I would take this a step farther and ask you to reexamine your programs for creative new approaches. Staying on top of trends that determine who, what, where, why, when and how volunteers become involved will make you a much better Leader of Volunteers (LOV). Try building your own models.

In fact, we already have been dealing with changes in the way we look at volunteers. Many new terms have been thrown at us in recent years in an attempt to better define and involve volunteers in all kinds of situations. What Steve and Susan have asked of us is to openly engage in the kinds of conversations that challenge the status quo and to apply the kind of model that best fit our given situation and the trends affecting volunteers today. I would encourage to you stop blindly following any given model and make the effort to understand the circumstances that have given rise to these terms.

To get you started, I have provided some of the definitions you may have encountered but perhaps never thought of them as different ways of looking at your program.

The Sampler Platter

Long-Term (year-round) Volunteer

Terms like Classic and Traditional come to mind. These volunteers have been the staples of volunteer management for many years. In fact, we have come to rely upon these volunteers as we would any paid staff. Thus the term "unpaid" staff. When we engage in discussion about volunteers we most often are thinking of these types of volunteers.

Episodic Volunteer

Nancy Macduff has written a book called, Episodic Volunteering: Building the Short-Term Volunteer Program. In fact, you are probably receiving more calls from these folks than for any other type of volunteer request. Time is short for all of us these days, and these volunteers want to come in, do some quick good, and get out. They may repeat this a few times throughout the year, but don't ask them to commit to anything of real length.

Professional Volunteer

These are the people who we forget about involving in our programs. Unfortunately, many still think of volunteers as unskilled labor. If you hear a LOV saying, "I can recruit just about anyone to do just about anything", they likely have considered the involvement of highly skill persons who will give their time; given the right circumstances and resources. In fact, Doctors, Lawyers, Information Technologist, and Management professional among others regularly volunteer their skills to organizations properly prepared to accept them.

Spontaneous Volunteer

Those of you in emergency and disaster services know about Spontaneous Volunteers. These are extremely good-hearted people who show up out of nowhere and everywhere to help in times of need. It is impossible to apply Long-Term techniques to these folks. Many are turned away because organizations are not prepared or have not considered how to take advantage of these potential resources.

Stipend Volunteer

AmeriCorps provides probably the best-known use of Stipend Volunteers. These volunteers receive a small amount of money to volunteer. It is not enough to live on but may help overcome burdens or barriers to volunteering or provide educational benefits. Many may volunteer for a long-term assignments, but understanding the motivations and legalities if their involvement set them apart from the more traditional long-term volunteers.

Service-Learning Volunteer

Service-Learning Volunteers burst onto the scene among the debates over requiring middle and high school students to volunteer. Soon organizations were flooded with requests like, "I need 20 hours of volunteering by next week." Many organizations quickly developed programs to engage and enrich the experience of today's youth and teenage volunteers. Although your organization may get some significant work done, the focus is more on the experience of the volunteer and less on the mission.

Court Appointed Volunteer

I have seen two models of involving Court Appointed Volunteers. One has a completely separate process of involving them the other incorporates them directly into existing volunteer opportunities and does not openly distinguish them from other volunteers. Blindly following your established Long-Term practices will likely get you into trouble here if you don't have an open discussion with staff about how to best fit them in your program.

In fact, that is the point to all of these examples - to examine and reexamine the appropriate means and methods of involving volunteers.

Volunteer Board Members

Are they volunteers or not? Some say yes and actively include them in their volunteer program. Other say no and avoid their involvement at all costs. Many work them in the middle with a cautious eye. Obviously they are often treated different than your "Classic" Volunteer. Ask yourself and others in your organization, "why is this?" The answers will start you on the way to reexamining your program.

Consultant Volunteer

Steve and Susan ask us to rethink the traditional way we have been thinking of volunteers and to think of volunteers as being like consultants. In their words as, "paid specialists who are retained to perform short-term projects, events, or activities. People whose work has a defined beginning, middle, end and desired outcome. People who know what they're getting into and how long it's going to take."

Susan Ellis in From the Top Down (probably the most referred to text in our field), provides a good discussion on the different categories of volunteers. Check it out. In the mean time, look over this menu and decide if you are going to order a la carte or get the sampler platter.  Your decision may lead to feast, famine or food poisoning.

Bon Appetit.

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