Understanding Your Volunteers

March 31, 2011

Whether your organization has a large or small volunteer core, it is important to understand your volunteers as a collective group. Conducting focus groups is a great way to learn what your volunteers are thinking and feeling regarding various general or specific topics because they provide both a formal space to share opinions and an intimate setting between participants.

There are many sources out there discussing conducting focus groups for research purposes. (http://www.marketlinkresearch.com/pdf/guide.pdf) However, you can conduct focus groups even if you are not going to write a 10-page report on your findings. It is a great way to gather what your volunteers think of your new policies or what enrichment opportunities you should provide for them. They are also inexpensive.

I conducted focus groups with youth at the Science Museum of Minnesota in November and December of last year to gain a better understanding of what our youth wanted from our youth program. I conducted 6 focus groups with 5-8 youth in each group. All groups received the same 7 questions during a 45 minute session. Adults can handle a longer session, but typically should not run over 2 hours.

The information gathered from the discussions helped me learn what our program does well and what more we can be doing to support them. Here is a list of things to keep in mind as you work to better understand your volunteers.

Organizing a focus group:

  • Do not choose participants based on how comfortable you are with them. Remember, you want to learn! Participants should represent an array of opinions.
  • Choose a location where everyone can hear and see each other. Avoid a ‘classroom style’ seating arrangement.

Questions and topics:

  • Questions should be open-ended and focused. Don’t ask yes or no questions, but your questions should not be so vague that participants are unsure of what you’re asking.
  • Begin with an ‘easy’ question to break the ice. Everyone may be nervous so start off with a question that won’t make anyone uncomfortable.

Facilitating a discussion:

  • Don’t agree or disagree with their opinions. You’re there to observe not to reproach, if something is said and you are in disagreement you must hold it in.
  • You’re a facilitator not a participant! Let volunteers have a conversation amongst each other, if they are not answering your question, gently sway them back b rephrasing your question.

Making sense of your data:

  • After each focus group, write down your first impressions, general feelings, perceptions, and any patterns you see. The longer you wait, the more you will forget.
  • Share what you found with your volunteers! You don’t want your volunteers to feel like what they shared was ignored; let them know you understand.

Beatriz Carrillo

Youth Engagement Coordinator, Science Museum of Minnesota


Sealing the Deal with Potential Volunteers

March 24, 2011

According to the Rule of Seven, “a prospect needs to see or hear your marketing message at least seven times before they take action and buy from you.” Once they take action though, you must be prepared to make the final sale.  Let’s think about that in the sense of a potential volunteer.  When a potential volunteer notices our marketing tools and they call us, are we effectively “sealing the deal” to get them connected with a volunteer opportunity?  I have been with RSVP as an AmeriCorps VISTA for about seven months and this is something I struggle with.  Quite a few times I have had a person call in to me after seeing our PSA in the paper or one of our flyers (note that they called me, meaning that they are obviously already interested); so I’d explain the program, send out an application in the mail, and wait, without hearing anything back.  Was there something I could have done differently?

I found some helpful tips online.  Tips for Volunteer Coordinators, Utilizing Your Most Valuable Resource. The tips seemed so obvious after reading them, but maybe I just needed to see them AGAIN.  Two of the tips really stood out to me and warranted a deeper look.

  1. Make it easy for people to volunteer.
  2. Ask people to volunteer in areas they are passionate about.

Part of the reason the RSVP program exists is to eliminate the barriers that older adults have to volunteering, essentially what Tip #1 says.  Here’s how:

  • Have opportunities in the communities they live in.
  • Work within their time availabilities.
  • Prove that volunteering will be worth their time and that they will be making an impact on the community and the organization.
  • Provide perks or deals to get people to volunteer (travel reimbursement, recognition events, trainings, etc.)

And here is how we cover Tip #2:

  • Have opportunities that meet their many skills or interests.
  • Give the opportunity to provide change in areas that are meaningful to them (grandchild’s school, environment, neighborhood clean-up, etc.)

I knew these were the things RSVP did, because I had been told, and because it’s on our flyer.  But what did it mean?  How were we actually doing all of the bulleted items above? I realized that (and it’s so obvious) I had to understand the product before I tried selling it! I had to get out in the community, do visits with our nonprofit partners, understand what types of positions they needed volunteers recruited for, and converse with my coworkers so I knew what they were doing as well.

Being a connector group for older adult volunteers and nonprofits in the community, you play a lot of phone tag.  You have to get to know your volunteer, find a perfect volunteer opportunity for them, see if the opportunity is still available with our nonprofit partner, give them the volunteer’s information, and then follow up to see if it was a good match or if you need to find something else.  Then once a good match is made, help the volunteer understand they are a volunteer at XYZ Agency, and they are also an RSVP member.  Here are some things that we are doing to help make this work:

  • Meeting with the potential volunteer in person.  Getting to know them face to face and making them feel they are worth our time, because we are asking for theirs.  This also helps make them feel like an RSVP member, not just a volunteer at the agency where they volunteer.
  • Creating a universal application with our partner nonprofits.  This way the volunteer doesn’t have to fill out an RSVP application and then fill out all the same stuff on an application for the agency they will be volunteering at.
  • Using a call-log system to track the number of phone contacts it takes before a volunteer gets signed up with one of our partner nonprofits.  Less is best!
  • Having good, effective, “to the point” materials that highlight our program and the areas of great need in the community.

And before I let you go, here’s a tip I learned from my own experience (don’t judge, I’m sure I’m not the only one) which doesn’t need any further commenting:  Follow up in a timely manner!

Danielle Schminkey

Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA)


Helping Volunteers in Job Search

March 17, 2011

According to MAVA’s 2010 report on The Status of Minnesota ’s Volunteer Programs In a Shifting Environment, 66% of organizations experiencing increased inquires about volunteering indicated the increase was primarily driven by unemployed people.

Depending on the geographic location of your volunteer program and the type of organization it serves, your percentage of unemployed volunteers seeking job-related benefits from their service might be relatively high or low.  However, it is certain that they are in your program and there are more of them today than there were 2 years ago.

We say that volunteering is a great way to gain new skills, fill-in resume gaps and “get your foot in the door”.  It’s a solid recruitment message, but is your volunteer program delivering on its promise to help volunteers in their job search?  Have your recognition and retention practices evolved to meet the needs of your job-seeking volunteers?

Aleisha’s blog, originally published by Young Nonprofit Professionals Network – Twin Cities, on her person’s experience as a job-seeking volunteer written to an audience of fellow job-seekers. The author, Aleisha Lee, specifically cites the type of benefits she has found meaningful.  If the Aleisha was a volunteer in your program, how could you best recognize her for her service and retain her as a volunteer over time?

Jay Haapala

Volunteer Services Manager, Minnesota Children’s Museum

President, Minnesota Association for Volunteer Administration

Volunteer Loss

March 7, 2011

Having worked in Senior Services prior to my current role at the Science Museum, I’ve had repeated experiences helping volunteers through the passing of an elderly client. It was never easy to bring the news to the volunteer for so many reasons; some more obvious and some not.

HIPAA restricts the sharing of information regarding clients’ health, which sometimes made the death seem sudden to the volunteer since they didn’t know there was anything wrong. And even after death there were defined boundaries I worked to enforce to protect the client’s loved ones’ time and privacy. Permission was always asked from those grieving before memorial or contact information was shared with a volunteer who wanted to pay their respects.

Whenever I needed to contact a volunteer about a death, I tried to learn as much as I could about their ongoing interaction so I could try to predict how distraught the volunteer would be. I kept notes about how long they had been interacting, how often, and to what degree so I could use it in just this type of situation to prepare myself for sharing the difficult news. I made calendar reminders and database notes to myself to check in with them 3 months down the road. Many think technology gets in the way of conveying personal information but with the number of people we interact with on a daily basis, I believe it only helps to ‘keep it all straight.’

As I became accustomed with this type of conversation, I made sure to take the time to truly empathize with the volunteer if they needed support. Although the conversations were done over the phone many times, they were done when I had no other distractions. Not knowing the volunteers views on death, religion, their previous experience or sensitivity, I tried to support each of them without including any of my own views into the conversation. Sometimes volunteers wanted to share theirs and sometimes they wanted to leave the conversation to deal with the news on their own and I followed their lead as to where they wanted the conversation to go.

Even with these lessons learned and this experience as a guide, I still feel unprepared when we have to help our program move through the death of a current or emeritus volunteer; it is so different. With clients there is a degree of separation that allows you to look in on the grief and function through it so much easier than when you must function to support those around you while grieving as well. I feel fortunate to have this experience to draw on though as I work through this more difficult maze.

We see a snippet of a volunteer’s life when they come in to work, without knowing about health issues or how aging is affecting them personally. And even when we are ‘in the know,’ the news of a volunteer passing is still difficult. It ends up being our job to communicate the news to volunteers, staff, to respond to the family with our condolences, to share pictures and memories; tasks far from what most of us have on our job descriptions. A graduated step from the single conversations I once had with volunteers about their loss of a client, it is an event that has become worthy of an internal communication plan. A cold way to think about such an emotional subject, yes. But to me, nothing feels better when you are faced with an emotional loss and a time when your support of others is key, then a Word Document that tells you exactly what to do.


HIPAA: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/m2e411a1.htm

Having a Plan: http://www.policevolunteers.org/pdf/Death%20of%20a%20volunteer.pdf

Advice (book listed on http://www.energizeinc.com):

Dush, D.M., “Balance and Boundaries in Grief Counseling: An Intervention Framework for Volunteer Training,” American Journal of Hospice Care, 1988 (4)


Molly Kennedy Lageson

Volunteer Resources Specialist, Science Museum of Minnesota