Working With Volunteer Groups

Perhaps one of the most challenging tasks that a recreation professional will face is working harmoniously with volunteer youth sports or special interest associations. It’s not an easy task, but there are some basic actions that can help make the process much smoother.

First, there is no cookie-cutter solution that can be applied everywhere because everyone’s circumstances are unique. The best solution for a small city may not be right for a large county.

Therefore, as with any management decision, options must be weighed against circumstances to determine the best course of action.

Broad Perspective

Looking at this from a broader perspective, learning to successfully work with volunteer organizations is inherent in what public administration authors Janet and Robert Denhardt call the “New Public Service.”

In this view, administrators serve citizens, not customers. The Denhardts write, “The public interest is the result of a dialogue about shared values rather than the aggregation of individual self-interests. Therefore, public servants do not merely respond to the demands of ‘customers,’ but rather focus on building relationships of trust and collaboration with and among citizens.”

With that view in mind, volunteers become citizens who wish to serve a public purpose by getting involved. It is up to administrators to provide the tools and environment in which the volunteers can be successful.

In today’s strapped fiscal environment, local recreation departments are relying more and more on volunteer organizations to help provide services to citizens.

It is a “self-help” environment where citizens and administrators work together to provide a public service.

It’s a “pay to play” arrangement, and if people want special services, they either need to be willing to pay for them outside the normal tax base and/or step up to the plate and invest sweat equity.

Paid staffs who work with volunteers in any capacity must first understand that while they are being monetarily compensated to hold up their end of the partnership, volunteers aren’t. Volunteers are compensated in other ways, either helping with a program in which their child participates or providing a self-fulfilling public service.

However, while volunteers can’t be treated like paid staff, there are some parallel actions that should be taken.

Managing Volunteers

One of the problems managers identify about working with volunteers is that they are sometimes unreliable. Alan Andreasen and Philip Kotler note in their book, Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations, that one manager described the “rule of thirds” in relation to volunteers.

One third of volunteers on a project are self-motivated, work very hard and are very dependable. At the other end of the spectrum, a third only want to be able to tell their friends they are volunteering and don’t really want to work. It’s motivating and guiding the third in the middle that can make or break a volunteer program.

The solution that experienced administrators have employed is to treat volunteers as much as possible like professional, full-time employees. It is true that many times recreation administrators don’t have a big choice in who volunteers for the third-party programs. Of course, if the program is one that the department is operating, then they have a great deal of control.

Either way, establishing upfront, clear guidelines regarding expectations on both sides of the fence is vital to success.

Using Written Agreements

A good way to achieve this is by a written agreement. An agreement sets up job responsibilities both for the volunteer and the government entity. Both volunteers and managers will understand the goals of the partnership and what is expected of each of them. It also establishes performance levels and expectations and consequences if they are not met. It is important to follow through on these standards if they are compromised.

Peachtree City’s Recreation Administrator, Sherry McHugh (CPRP), directly manages 11 youth sports associations and less directly oversees three special interest groups. She notes there has been more than one occasion that she has had to hold either her staff’s feet or those of the association to the fire to ensure compliance with agreed-upon standards.

“Volunteers have jobs and families and other things going on in their lives,” she says. “So sometimes the volunteer responsibilities fall back in their priority list, and we need to remind them of the obligation they accepted.”

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