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