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I am far from perfect when it comes to managing volunteers, but this is what I have learned to be effective. Everyone has different preferences in managerial styles, but I think the ultimate key to dealing with volunteers or working with anyone in general, is to treat them with respect and understanding.

I would consider myself someone that volunteers a fair bit, and I think that’s what drew me to this position as the Food Bank coordinator at SFU. I have volunteered in various positions, dealing with different managerial styles and have learned what works and what did not work for me.  It’s easy to judge someone’s managerial style when you are under their wing, so to speak.  But, it can be pretty challenging to be in charge of someone - especially volunteers who do not have to volunteer for you if they don’t want to. Volunteers can be volunteering for many reasons: work experience, to be social, to learn new skills, etc.

I’ve learned a few things about dealing with volunteers from my experience as both a volunteer and as someone who is now managing volunteers. These are my top 3 ways to create a positive volunteering experience:

Get to Know Your Volunteers

It’s really important that you actually care about your volunteers. There is nothing worse than being forgotten, called the wrong name, or just being dismissed.  Volunteers are people and they have lives outside of the position that they are volunteering in.

There are several ways to do this. One: talk to them! This may seem simple, but it is hard not to get too wrapped up in the task at hand. In my position, I hold biweekly meetings with volunteers and at the beginning of the meeting, I do a fun “check-in” question where I ask the volunteers something a bit silly so we can get to know one another, and it’s not all about the job. I think my favourite check-in question would probably be “If you had to be a dessert, what would you be and why?”

Of course, not everyone gets a chance to hold meetings, but just chatting and asking about the volunteer’s weekend is a nice way to make the volunteer feel valued and that you care about them! I know that when I felt valued as a volunteer, I felt more responsible and passionate about my role.

Listen

One of my greatest pet peeves in life is when someone sees a situation and automatically judges your inadequacies before hearing you out. For instance, if you were told to do a job, but you end up having to do something else that needed your immediate attention, and then all your manager sees is that the job is not finished. 

When managing volunteers you need to be able to hear people out before you jump to conclusions or assume they are inadequate. In both work and in volunteering these kinds of situations have come up and I always feel a lot happier with the manager that listens to me rather than disregarding what I have to say. Believe it or not, most people are trying to do their best. 

I must admit that in a coordinator role, I’ve caught myself thinking “Why haven’t they done this yet?”, but I make an effort to ask the volunteer what the situation was. For the times that I have thought, “Why haven’t they done this yet?”, and inquired about the situation, the volunteers have always told me something that is a very valid and understandable reason. Often times, something came up that was unexpected!

Being understanding and patient is important to help create a positive atmosphere, and to encourage volunteers to continue with their role.

Show Appreciation

Volunteers are tricky! They don’t work for you, and really, they don’t owe you anything. That is why it is important to show appreciation with your words.  A simple “thank you” goes a long way. If you can, a small gift of appreciation also can make a volunteer smile!

From personal experience, I have noticed that it can be easy to forget to appreciate your reliable volunteers and it’s easy to take them for granted!  I really try to make an effort to say thank you at the end of each of my volunteer shifts. It can be hard when this happens every day and you get caught up with a conversation.  But, I know from personal experience that I work harder for the people that treat me well than for the people that lack appreciation. 

I am far from perfect when it comes to managing volunteers, but this is what I have learned to be effective. Everyone has different preferences in managerial styles, but I think the ultimate key to dealing with volunteers or working with anyone in general, is to treat them with respect and understanding.

Beyond the Blog

SFU Co-op Student
Connect with Natalie on LinkedIn or Twitter Natalie is a Communications and English graduate with a love for writing and learning. In the midst of her first co-op workterm as a marketing assistant, where she learned many practical skills and life lessons that inspired her to write this blog series. She volunteered at SFU as an Orientation Leader, and a FCAT Mentor.

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