supervising volunteers Supervising Volunteers: Using Transformational Talent Management to Take Your Organization Further

The challenge of supervising volunteers effectively is often noted as a key concern for volunteer organizations.  We see it pop up in our annual Volunteer Management Progress Report state-of-the-industry survey and mentioned by our training participants. 

The fact is folks are not having fun. 

The ability to lead an unpaid workforce, filled with talent that genuinely wants to help should feel like a joy and something to celebrate.  More often, it feels stressful, unproductive, and frustrating for both volunteers and employees. 

But what if we were better able to truly tap the deep talents of people in our communities?  

Would our organizations be better off? 

We believe the answer is a resounding “Yes!”  

When equipped with a deep bench of talent that is a mix of paid and unpaid support, nonprofits can become stronger, more resilient, and better able to weather the storms of uncertainty now and into the future. 

Volunteers aren’t simply “free labor” or another pair of hands to help in a pinch. They bring all their lived experiences to the table – all of the academic education, professional training, personal development insights and yes, key learning from the school of hard knocks.  

Every adult on the planet has their own special mix of skills and experiences, whether they have a doctoral degree or a GED. Unfortunately, most nonprofits haven’t yet seen how to maximize this immense talent pool.  

Rather, they continue to view people as a forced dichotomy of either a) necessary, but often troublesome “widgets” to be plugged into shifts (think: rank and file event volunteers) or b) super special people who have innate talents that put them above others (think: boards of directors). 

But people are so much more than that. 

When we neglect to really get to know the people who are offering their valued time and talent to our organizations, and rather treat them like a indentured servant or someone who is superhuman, we run the risk of missing their full potential, objectifying them, or worse exploiting them. 

In today’s world – with a justified laser focus on righting the wrongs of social and racial equity – that simply doesn’t fly. 

Volunteers have value.  

They matter.  

They deserve to be supported adequately and celebrated with vigor. 

They merit the consideration, planning, and strategic infrastructure, staffing, and resources that individual donors receive, not because volunteers are more likely to make financial contributions, but because their time has real value and the act of volunteerism has power. 

Consider the sacrifices volunteers must make to help.   

When they say “yes” to spending time on your cause, they say “no” to other options in their lives.  

Volunteerism comes at a personal cost, sometimes small, sometimes large.   

Volunteers must arrange transportation, childcare, meals, and sometimes equipment, supplies, and special clothing to support their volunteer efforts.  They must sometimes trade time away from work, family, or hobbies to volunteer. They may even find it is mentally or physically exhausting to serve on a consistent basis. 

Nonetheless, most do so without complaint. They are ready to aid in any way necessary. 

So, when we don’t take time to explore their complexity and nuances as people, we are – in some ways – expecting something for nothing.   

We also are missing out on their true, yet unrealized, potential. 

Luckily, many volunteers often find value and satisfaction in the work itself, in seeing the changes they help bring about in the world. They’ll look the other way or simply “put up” with an organization’s limitations in service of the greater good. 

This is what keeps them coming back and fosters their loyalty, which isn’t really to the organization, but to their peers and those they serve.   

Is this really what we want as volunteer-involving organizations?  That people merely suffer through? 

I think we can do better. 

Volunteers are often deeply transformed by their experiences, unbeknownst to the sponsoring organization that engages them, which is too busy to see the many miracles on any given day. 

It is a tenuous relationship indeed.  

When volunteers feel they aren’t making a difference, and they get fed up with less than stellar treatment, they simply move on to the next opportunity where they hope for a renewed chance for change.  

Worse, they stop volunteering altogether. 

And, often organizations blame this turnover on volunteers themselves.  They chock it up to character flaws in the individual, rather than understanding and owning their own responsibility for the careful, respectful, and purposeful stewardship of volunteer talent. 

It’s easier to blame others than it is to look inward. 

Volunteer Supervision as Talent Management 

What are the alternatives in a busy and uncertain nonprofit world? 

What might happen if we changed our view of volunteers as free labor and began to see them as complex individuals who are full of existing talent and potential? 

What if we viewed volunteers as what they really are – high value human capital that can fuel our organization’s success AND people with thoughts, feelings, and emotions that drive their contributions? 

Rather than working hard to “get people to show up” and complaining when they don’t, we might take the time to better understand their needs, personal experience, and how they might best be matched with a service experience that inspires and where they can truly thrive. 

Yes, these conversations take time.  

They also honor each person and take care to understand how their gifts can be used in a way that respects their skill sets and serves the organization’s needs more effectively.  

These two sets of needs aren’t at odds. They can work in cooperation for greater traction. 

That’s where talent management comes in. 

But what is “talent management” anyway? 

The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) notes that “Talent management strategies are designed to attract, develop, retain and use employees with the necessary skills and aptitude to meet a business’s current and future needs.”  

For two decades, human resources professionals have used talent management to perfect the deployment of personnel throughout their companies. 

Volunteer-led organizations have been slower on the uptake. 

I’ve written in the past about the risks and rewards of a volunteer talent management approach. I’ve pointed out that, at the core, it’s really people (not paperwork) that help grow and sustain consistent results, that they are the raw material – the rocket fuel – that propels nonprofit missions forward. 

In the end, the effectiveness and impact that an organization can achieve doesn’t rest solely on how much money it has.   

Rather, it relies heavily on whether it has the right people in the right jobs doing the right things to make it all work. This goes for both paid employees and volunteer-based human resources.  

The more individual capabilities are matched, nurtured, and grown, the further the organization can travel in meeting its goals and aims. This is talent management. 

In addition, when talent is optimized, engaging and transformative volunteer (and employee) experiences fuel the commitment to return again and again to contribute.  

Volunteer Talent Management: Combining the Individual & the System  

There are dynamic relationships at play between volunteer talent and the nonprofits they support that go beyond the individual, too. 

The more traditional view of “talent” takes into consideration only the individual skills, knowledge and abilities of the employee or volunteer.  Talent is fostered through learning and development activities, as well as a match between competencies and preferences and the work at hand. 

However, today’s talent management is much more than that. 

Modern talent management takes on a systems approach that also takes into consideration the organization’s capacity and capabilities that serve as the context within which the mission is achieved, as well as individual gifts and skills. 

This means that organizations need to take a hard look at operational systems that either support or impede performance.   

Individual talent can only go so far.  

If the system is working against them, volunteers will get either discouraged and leave or keep trudging on out of a sense of loyalty, but without the ability to gain real, meaningful traction in their work.  

For example, imagine that a volunteer joins an organization with all the dedication and inspiration that comes with a new endeavor. They complete the new volunteer orientation training program and are assigned a role that is needed by the organization but doesn’t really match the volunteer’s interests or skills.   

Then, when they arrive on their first day, their supervisor is disorganized and dismissive. They give off the impression that they don’t really have time for volunteers. The volunteer is briefly introduced to other people nearby and then sat down at a workspace. The supervisor gives them a manual to read and lets them know it holds everything they’ll need to get started.  When the volunteer has questions, the supervisor is nowhere to be found. At the end of the day, the volunteer packs up and leaves. 

What’s the chance they’ll return? What will they say when others ask how it went? How will this experience change the organization’s reputation in the community? 

Unfortunately, this story is all too common. Organizations do little of the preparatory work to make the most of volunteer talent, and when they do bring new volunteers onboard, it’s a disaster for everyone. 

In the end, volunteers are blamed for being unreliable, and supervisors further cement their belief that volunteers are more work than they’re worth. 

There’s an alternate possibility, though. 

A reality where the organization has done the legwork.  That they take time to learn more about the unique characteristics of each volunteer and attempts to plug them in where they can truly shine. That organizations have addressed any structural gaps that impede volunteer progress and deflate inspiration. That supervisors are trained and have a solid plan in place on how volunteer talent will be used in key roles that are directly tied to the organization’s strategic goals and objectives. And, that volunteers and employees find a way to work together in harmony. 

Certainly, finding the right volunteer talent is a first step toward nonprofit success. But, organizations must do more.  They must become “architects of experience” to create an environment where volunteer talent can thrive and where employees feel well-suited to both lead and follow their volunteer counterparts. 

Often, this means upskilling for both volunteers and employees who lead them. Traditional position-based learning and development, coaching and mentoring, leadership development, performance management, and succession planning are all part of the process of creating a space for volunteer talent to contribute more deeply to the organization’s success. 

Consider the powerful return on these investments in talent development and management. 

What if volunteer capabilities were clearly known? What if they were matched with an opportunity where they could put their foundational skills to use and where they could further stretch and grow? What if they were able to transform personally as they saw, firsthand, transformations in those they served, their colleagues, or the community at large? 

What difference would a truly engaged volunteer workforce make to your organization? 

And, do you have the will, the courage, and the vision to make it happen?