Hello Hack Library School readers! I’m excited to introduce myself with a topic very near and dear to my heart: managing volunteers.
In 2011, after finishing my MA, I found myself at a bit of a crossroads and needed to do something different and interesting while I figured out what was next. So I started a year-long AmeriCorps placement with an arts education nonprofit, helping administer three volunteer programs. I did everything from the nitty-gritty of event RSVPs and answering questions about the application process to big-picture reevaluations of the entire volunteer recruitment and screening system. Although none of these skills are taught in my MLIS program, I can already tell that they’ll be among the most valuable skills in my professional toolkit.
Much of the recent debate about unpaid internships can also be applied to volunteering; it can provide valuable experience for volunteers and build capacity for organizations. Plus, it often just feels really good. But when volunteering becomes an expectation or prerequisite for moving ahead in a field, or when administrators use volunteers to replace professional staff, thorny ethical issues arise. Despite these concerns, though, volunteering remains an important part of our civic and cultural landscape, and my guess is that it’s here to stay.
So I’m not here to tell you that volunteering is inherently good or bad for the profession, or to tell you that you should or should not volunteer as an MLIS student. I am absolutely here to tell you that you will need to manage volunteers at some point in your career, and that your MLIS program most likely will not equip you to do so. Volunteers are a long-term investment for your organization, and without some forethought and infrastructure, neither you nor your volunteers will be satisfied. So here are some basics you’ll want to keep in mind as you get started:
Although some people may contact you directly to find out about volunteering, you might also need to do some recruitment, especially if you have a special event for which you need several volunteers. It’s important to have some idea of type of volunteer who will be the best fit for your needs. You may want to contact a local college or university, post fliers in your library, or reach the general public through websites such as Idealist or VolunteerMatch.
Even if you only have one volunteer, develop a simple application form. Include personal information, an emergency contact, references, and a short answer question about their skills and interests. This will help the position feel more formal, and standardize the process for the future. It can also help you more effectively match individuals with tasks and projects. Conduct a background check. Your organization’s human resources department can probably help with this. There are several inexpensive services that can save you a world of problems down the road.
Offer the volunteer a simple position description and a brief orientation. This doesn’t need to be exhaustive, as it would be for a new employee, but volunteers will feel more welcomed and invested if they’ve met others in the organization, understand what is expected, and know that you’re prepared for them to work. Sandra Hoyer makes some great points about this in her post, For the Love of Volunteers and Unpaid Interns. “Feeling like my arrival was expected, and not a surprise, cues to me as a volunteer that I am truly wanted and needed there,” Sandra says. “Setting off on a note of preparedness makes me excited to contribute and often affects the length of my stay.”
Give your volunteers feedback! Most often, this will mean thanking them, genuinely and frequently. Thank them when they arrive and when they leave, and when they complete a major task or event, spread the good news to others in the organization. You may also want to host a volunteer appreciation event, such as a special tour or party. Sometimes, however, this will include constructive criticism. It’s okay to let a volunteer know that it isn’t working out! Holding volunteers accountable to expectations can make the difference between wasting everyone’s time and truly building your organization’s capacity.
Ready to learn more about engaging and managing your volunteers effectively? There are plenty of excellent resources you can check out to hit the ground running.
- VolunteerMatch frequently hosts free webinars on fundamental volunteer management topics.
- I have also gotten good use from Energize’s Volunteer Management Resource Library. It arranges resources around specific skill sets or problems in volunteer management, as well as more general overviews, including a page devoted to volunteers in library and museum settings.
- The ALA wiki has a page on volunteers and recommends a couple of key resources:
- A 1971 ALA report that, while somewhat dated, still provides some good fundamental principles.
- Preston Driggers and Eileen Dumas’ excellent and comprehensive recent book Managing Library Volunteers.
It’s your turn, hackers! Do any of you have additional tips or resources? If you’ve been a volunteer, what did your organization do to make your experience positive, or what could they have done differently?