Volunteering as a student can make the difference between having the real-world skills you need to be competitive in this tight job market, and just be another library school graduate without a job. This is not the topic I want to write about, as it’s something I have written about here before. No, I would like to share some thoughts from a volunteer to a hosting organization, something with a slightly different viewpoint from this post over at Closed Stacks.
As a former teacher, and longtime student, I despise “busy work.” Work generally highly consuming, but without long-term merit is very frustrating and is pointless. I say this by way of introduction to my first point: don’t give your volunteers busy work. Assign them tasks that have impact in the organization in some concrete way. If the connection is not immediately apparent, highlight for the volunteers how this task would benefit the organization in a significant way. If you can’t come up with this, then think twice about assigning it to a volunteer. In addition, don’t assign anything to your volunteers that you are not willing to do yourself. As a matter of fact, lend a hand from time to time to show some solidarity with your volunteers. We like that.
After training them appropriately, let the volunteers function on their own. I do not think volunteers should replace your paid staff, but there are areas within any organization that could use another helpful, hard-working person to lend a hand in. Train your volunteers in this area, then observe how they work and offer constructive criticism. See how they do, and if they are ready, let them function on their own. We don’t need to be handled with kid gloves, I promise. Good volunteers come to do work, and that’s what we want to do – work. Don’t be afraid to train volunteers in a variety of areas, as well – especially if they ask for it. Offer new opportunities for other areas of work, and follow the train/observe/self-direction cycle I just mentioned. This increases the volunteer’s self-worth, and it helps your organization have a broad range of talents available in its volunteer cohort.
I talked about this tangentially in the first point, but have specific tasks already selected before a volunteer starts as a new volunteer, or before they start their shift for the day. Being able to direct volunteers to do a specific task (or set of tasks) helps them to stay focused, and to keep interruptions of “What do I do now?” to a minimum. Naturally these tasks will change over time as the volunteer acclimates to your organization, culture, and is trained in different areas.
Please offer constructive criticism. If we do something wrong, let us know! For me this is key, as I am just starting out, and the input from seasoned professionals has been invaluable to me. Good volunteers can handle the criticism, and we want to do the best job we can. Just be constructive, as you would with most any criticism in the workplace.
Say Thank You! Always thank your volunteers. Make them feel that they are making a significant contribution to your organization (if you have done your job in selecting and training the volunteers, they should be making significant contributions) and be specific. This really helps us to feel valued. Specific verbal praise (when warranted) is excellent. Also, think about some kind of regular event where you honor your volunteers, and recognize them to the larger public. This could be a small hosted lunch for the volunteers, or a mention/article in the key publications of your organization. When people read these statements, it will (hopefully) inspire other people to volunteer.
What experience do you have managing volunteers? Experience as a volunteer? I’d love to hear your thoughts!