Rob Jackson: Three tips for developing meaningful volunteer roles

Ask the right questions, learn from games and deal in results, not roles

Rob Jackson
Rob Jackson

Spending time developing roles for volunteers is an essential yet often overlooked aspect of volunteer engagement. We pay volunteers with meaning, not money, but all too often skimp on the investment of time needed to craft roles that are really meaningful or motivating and will deliver a great volunteer experience.

So here are three tips that I hope will help you create even better roles for volunteers.

Ask the right questions

When developing roles, avoid asking people in your organisation "what do you think volunteers can/could/should do to help?" The problem with this question is that people censor their answers based on their past experiences or prejudices about volunteers. If a colleague has had problems with unreliable volunteers in the past, then they will be unlikely to suggest a role where reliability is important.

Instead, work with colleagues to identify what their role actually involves, ideally in as much detail as possible. Then explore how current or new volunteers could contribute their skills, talents and experience to help get that work done.

Learn from games

Games are fun activities that people enjoy playing and all games have four elements present that motivate people to play them. We should make sure those four motivational elements are present in our volunteer roles too.

First, ownership: does the volunteer feel they own their role and the work within it?

Second, responsibility for results: is the volunteer responsible for actually achieving something in the course of their volunteering (remember, people want to make a difference)?

Third, authority to think: is the volunteer controlled and micro-managed, or are they empowered to use their own skills, talents and experience to figure out the best way to get the role done, perhaps bringing new ideas and insights to the work?

Fourth, keeping score: does the volunteer know how they are doing and whether they are making progress towards that difference they are there to make?

Results, not tasks

Don't use the typical task-oriented, paid, staff job description format for volunteer roles. Why? Here's a quick question for you: have you ever woken up, looked at your job description and got really excited by what it contains, so much so that you can't wait to get to work?

No, thought not.

If you're like most people, you probably haven't looked at your job description since you were recruited or had your last annual appraisal. Why then do we think that format will inspire volunteers, people who we need to remain passionate about our work, people we need to re-recruit every day by fulfilling their motivational pay cheques?

Think about constructing volunteer role descriptions around the results you want volunteers to achieve, giving space for people to develop their own ideas about how to do things rather than just doing a list of uninspiring tasks.

Finally, remember these wise words: "Attempting to recruit volunteers without first having developed worthwhile positions to offer them is equivalent to attempting to sell a product to people who have no need for it. It can be done, but the buyer may well become unhappy later. And when volunteers are unhappy, they don’t stay around long." (Steve McCurley, Rick Lynch and Rob Jackson, The Complete Volunteer Management Handbook, Directory of Social Change, 2012.)

Rob Jackson is a volunteer consultant

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