Community ProjectsPeople SystemsVillage Development

Volunteer Manager’s Checklist

As a volunteer tourist I have really appreciated receiving tips before my trips from hosts. Now I return the favour. Here are some tips for volunteer managers, and many may also find the resources in the ‘References’ section at bottom of value.

Your ideal destination

Do you want to change the world? Most of us do, but how do we know we mean the same thing by this? To be more specific we might say ‘I want to bring about sustainability and justice’. Fine tuning further we could add ‘by stopping supermarkets’. However, none of these visions relate to our own field of interest. It is helpful to dig a little deeper, lest you may find your volunteers have different ideas and end up throwing the trowel in.

It is recommended that projects begin with a shared, written vision and a clear long term goal (1; 2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10). This is to provide coherence and effective working relations (6; 9). Specialisation is efficient when contributing towards a common goal, so that practical and idealist personnel become complementary.

How to get here

Temperate ecosystems follow a pattern of succession, becoming more complex over time. Like permaculturists, they do not plough ahead, but get the preliminary ground work done. For example, an ecosystem would put on hold plans to construct an insulated eco-house in a garden while the existing one is exposed to the elements. Projects can bear fruit when the time is ripe.

A vision is not sufficient to avoid conflict; outcomes and actions should be agreed within limitations (11). The motivation of individuals requires maintenance for task completion and group dynamics (11). Keeping goals achievable makes them less daunting to begin (7; 9).

Special requirements

Sustenance, shelter and acceptance are root human needs. Try to get this right. The time you expect a new volunteer is not the best time to be out. If there is an event scheduled like a meeting or meal, this presents a good opportunity to introduce people. Additionally, if you are a health promotion venture, try to not just serve volunteers stodge. And finally, clean the soiled sheets.

Volunteer organisations which have the most formalised training and orientation programmes have least turnover. Volunteers are more likely to follow policies when they understand them (12), and are introduced to them at the start (13). Therefore, an induction procedure is useful to orient volunteers in the cause, systems and social group (4). New volunteer tourists often experience negative emotions (14) which could be mediated with an induction. A large organisation could have an assigned welcome person or buddy system. In a small organisation someone could just be asked to greet and show new people around.

Your responsibilities

To avoid conflict in a team, it is advised to have a selection policy which attracts members who share your vision and are emotionally mature (1). Let volunteers know if conditions change such as price, or if the project itself ends.

When volunteers are managed in a way which is explicitly developmental, supportive and appreciative, retention is more likely (15). A volunteer policy is a way to achieve this (16; 4; 17). The policy can describe the reciprocal rights and responsibilities of volunteers and the organisation, the application process, tasks, hours, support and supervision (16; 4; 17). This helps volunteers to know where they stand, encourages equal opportunities and demonstrates consideration (16; 4; 17).

If you want to give short term volunteers some choice, explain the roles and ask people to put themselves forward. This way volunteers do something they like, but know it is needed. A notice board could be very useful. Long term volunteers could focus more on specific responsibilities, aligning the vision with personal aspirations.

What to expect

Informality could facilitate flexibility, but works best where there are longstanding and strong interpersonal ties (4). Usually, the best way to ensure everyone can participate in decisions is to formalise procedures explicitly, rather than implicitly (2; 18; 7; 10). The group could map operations together and design how to work as a system (19).

For a group to function democratically, tasks could be arranged by: open delegation, taking responsibility, rotation, allocation with a rational criteria, diffusion of information and equal access to resources (18). If your meeting is about admin, make sure you have invited the administrator. Allocating meeting roles and setting an agenda restricts monologue. For accountability progress towards responsibilities should be systematically fed back. This avoids repeating the same meeting without conclusion. Training is available in how to operate such processes (1; 6; 8; 9; 20; 21; 22).

Some ground rules

You may choose to call talking stick forums where volunteers analyse their feelings, following on from the daily cuddle pile hoe down. While these activities are not to everyone’s taste, they could provide a forum for safe reflection among volunteer tourists. Try not to hog such meetings by bitching about other members. Remember that another factor which can enhance volunteer bonding is complaining about you. However it is achieved, the point is that people feel comfortable together, take responsibility for their feelings, and cultivate a nurturing environment.

Volunteer tourists can go through stages of disorientation and reflection, which require support (14). It is easiest to work through disorientation in a safe environment, and to reflect with other participants (14). Skills such as objectivity, emotional resilience, self-awareness and change are learnt (1; 6). Systems can be put in place to minimise conflict, such as: ground rules, conflict resolution protocols and confidentiality agreements (1).

What to bring with you

While the world would benefit from people bringing the joys of gardening to ‘the masses’, it would also benefit from people who carry themselves with honesty. A constant turnover of guests is not something everyone realistically enjoys. You don’t have to please everyone, or make false promises. If you find yourself preferring to stay indoors, then consider what you are most passionate about; perhaps this is what you can contribute. Unless, that is, you take on volunteers because you have a passion for bossing people around. I know from experience that volunteers on state funded work abroad programs may be surprised if a key role is to carry the manager’s handbag.

A leader should be present on the ground and in the moment. Founders should have skills in: visioning, inspiring, entrepreneurship, and physical labour (1). Leaders of voluntary organisations who are popular show commitment by giving time to the project and other members (12).


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  20. Rhizome
  21. Seeds for Change
  22. Turning the Tide

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