Training--The Secret to Using Volunteers Effectively to Implement Service Projects
By Dustin K. Hunter
Dustin K. Hunter is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and a partner in the firm of Kraft & Hunter LLP in Roswell, New Mexico.
One of the most important things that leaders of ABA YLD affiliate organizations can do throughout the bar year is to implement service projects. The outcome of these projects helps to define whether the year was a success.
If you are new to spearheading service projects, you might expect your volunteer members to just show up ready for work and the rest of the project to take care of itself. After all, it’s a great cause, right? Who wouldn’t want to help heroes, school children, orphans, the homeless, or whoever or whatever your young lawyer organization has identified as a worthy recipient of its resources and dedication. The truth of the matter is that having a worthy service project alone is not enough to make it a success. The primary factor that will determine whether your service project is successful will be whether you use your affiliate’s volunteer members effectively to execute the project.
Understanding the Nature of Service Project Volunteers
If your affiliate organization is typical of most, you will likely have two groups of people assisting with the implementation of your service projects. The first group will likely consist of members of your board, chairs of committees, staff members, and other leaders of your organization who do most of the work throughout the year. The second group will likely consist of one-time or “occasional” volunteers who are interested in the particular service project, but not necessarily the greater goals or obligations of your organization. Service projects are unique because unlike many of the items on your agenda for the year, you will not be able to rely on a few motivated individuals to implement the project and obtain the desired result. You must rely heavily on the second group of individuals known as “occasional” volunteers—many of whom you may have never met. Because you may have very little interaction with these key individuals, there is not enough time to fully bond with them, share your vision of the organization, or otherwise get them on board with your “strategic plan.” You must quickly train them and show them how to be effective and then follow up with them during and after the event to ensure that their experience is worthwhile and that their efforts actually make a difference.
Before the Event—Training and Assignments
Many of us have been involved in numerous service projects, from marathons and races to raise money to homebuilding, mentoring, judging, teaching, and fundraising. If you received any training before your events, you are in the distinct minority. This is where your affiliate can be different. Training is important because many volunteers will be unfamiliar with your organization’s overriding principals, leadership structure, and even the specifics of what will be expected of them on the day of the service project. Spending as little as an hour preparing the volunteers before the actual day of the event will pay huge dividends on the day the event takes place. Valerie Brown, How to Motivate Busy People to Volunteer , Ass’n Mgmt., Sept. 2003. Important things to cover during the training session include when and where volunteers should arrive, what exactly is expected of them, who is in charge, who can answer their questions, details of their tasks, and who to contact if there are problems on the day of the event.
“In order to make the service project a success, it is absolutely critical that your member volunteers understand the project, its goals, and most importantly their particular role in meeting these goals,” says Martha Chicoski, a member of the ABA YLD Affiliate Assistance team and past leader of many service projects. A major source of frustration for many volunteers is not fully understanding the project, the processes, or what is expected. “People can contribute time, talent, or [money] but they need to know exactly what you want before they can determine how to best get it for you.” Jim Cathcart, How to Motivate Volunteers , 101 Leaders Institute (2006).
When giving out assignments to first-time volunteers, be sure to think about the quality and quantity of the tasks assigned. If the assignment is not something you would want to do, think twice about giving it to an occasional volunteer. If the volunteer feels unappreciated or as though she were just a set of hands with nothing special to offer, then she will not likely come back. This is a double failure because you should be looking at your service projects as a recruiting opportunity to identify future leaders among current volunteers as well as additional members for your organization. See Dustin Hunter, Recruitment and Retention—The Keys to a Successful Volunteer Organization , 33 The Affiliate No. 3, Jan./Feb. 2008, available at
During the Event—Continued Training and Communication
Once you have trained your volunteers, it is important that you continue to show that you are concerned with their success and are paying attention to them. Jim Cathcart, How to Motivate Volunteers , 101 Leaders Institute (2006). Chicoski recommends that “even after you have trained the volunteers, you must still ensure that there is good communication during the event. The volunteers need to know that they are being supported and where to turn if they have questions or problems.” If a volunteer requests assistance, a leader in the organization should provide a positive solution, working directly with the volunteer. “Volunteer leaders absolutely must feel that their time and talent is efficiently used and is benefiting the association if they are expected to remain engaged.” Mark Frels, CAE, Motivating Volunteers , Associations Now, Nov. 2006. In addition, failure to help when your volunteers have questions or to provide what is needed for their satisfaction will cause frustration and may lead to a loss in morale or even a loss of volunteers.
After the Event—Feedback and Recognition
It is likely that your affiliate organization will implement more than one service project during the year. Consequently, you will likely be calling upon many of the same volunteers who have helped in the past for future projects. To encourage continued support for future projects you want to be sure that you are providing feedback and recognition to the volunteers during and after the service project. “Making sure that your volunteers feel appreciated for what they have contributed is a major factor affecting whether they will decide to return for future events or possibly become more involved with your organization,” according to Michael Pellicciotti, ABA YLD 2007–2008 Membership Director and member of the Washington State YLD Board of Directors. In order to maintain good morale and ensure that you have enough support, Pellicciotti notes, “We should recognize the value that particular members have provided and encourage them to participate in those activities at which they are uniquely talented.”
Volunteers want to feel appreciated and to be included in decisions being made about the project. They also long for a sense of community and connection and want to know that they are more than just a body that could be replaced by someone else. Angela Lamb, Motivating Employees and Volunteers Connect! , Summer 2005. Providing adequate feedback and recognition after your service event can help ensure that future events are a success.