Dealing with risk management in volunteering

Managing volunteer risk

Risk management is essential in all volunteer programs.

I recently finished a book called Transforming Nokia’s by Risto Siilasmaa. In it, Siilasmaa, the chair of NOKIA’s board of directors, talks about the value of “paranoid optimism”.

Basically, it’s that old saying “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst”. Paradoxically, by being paranoid (planning for the worst), an organization can be optimistic, because no matter what happens, there’s a plan in place to deal with it or something similar. By planning for the worst, you are justified in hoping for the best. Which is why we do risk management.

Risk management helps to ensure the safety and well-being of both volunteers and the communities they serve. And it starts with thinking about all the things that could go wrong. I’m going to cover three problem areas that I commonly see, and discuss what can be done to mitigate them.

The “Hero” problem

One of the more significant risks I’ve seen volunteer programs face is becoming too dependent on a single person. This could include the leader of the program, a key volunteer, or even the executive director.

Let's face it, we all have that one volunteer that we rely on above all the others. What would happen if, all of a sudden, that person wasn’t there? Illness, injury or a change in circumstances, many things could happen that would cause them to leave. And your entire program could be in jeopardy.

Succession planning is the key to handling this risk. Do you have an idea of how (or better yet, with whom) to replace the leader? Have a plan in place. It is also vital to build a large group of volunteers who are capable of stepping in and taking on the role of a key volunteer. Encourage that key volunteer to mentor or train newer volunteers so the program develops some resiliency.

The “Goose with the Golden Eggs” problem

Another common risk that volunteer programs face is becoming too dependent on a single funding source. This could include a grant from a foundation, a government program, or even a single donor. I’ve seen this in an organization where I serve on the board.

The majority of the people we serve are children on the autism spectrum. There are rumours that the funding process for autism is going to change in Canada. Parents may no longer have full say over how the funds are spent. Meaning that we may lose some or many of our clients. We needed to come up with a plan to replace that funding if the change does happen. We hope it doesn’t, but we’ve planned for the worst.

What risk management process do you have in place if your main funding source dried up? It’s imperative you diversify the funding sources for your program. This can be accomplished by developing revenue streams from as many different areas as possible—social enterprises, new donors, new grants or government funding, even (like we did) expanding your client base for increased membership fees.

I recommend at least three strong revenue sources to support your organization. I’m not saying this is easy but it’s a lot easier than trying to stay afloat when 90% of your funding has been cut.

The “It’s Always Worked Before” problem

As we’ve seen over the last couple of years, volunteer programs also run the risk of becoming too dependent on traditional processes and ways of doing things. This could include relying on outdated methods or tools, failing to adapt to changing circumstances, or simply being resistant to change.

The problem with this became obvious once Covid hit. Too many organizations simply hunkered down and waited for things to “get back to normal”. Three years later, many of those organizations just don’t exist anymore.

It is essential to be open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Encourage volunteers to share their ideas and suggestions. Seek out new tools and technologies that can help improve the program. Look closely at how you do things, and ask how they could be done differently. Finally, regularly review what’s happening in your sector and come up with “what if” plans.

Risk management is a crucial aspect of any volunteer program.

Keep in mind Nokia’s “paranoid optimism” formula. What are your organization’s weak points? Put plans in place for dealing with a breakdown, even if you don’t think it’s likely to happen.

The key to successful risk management is to be prepared for any eventuality. Avoid becoming too dependent on a single person, a single funding source, or even your traditional ways of doing things.

By having succession plan and a team of trained and capable volunteers, by diversifying funding sources, and by being open to new ideas and ways of doing things, volunteer programs can minimize the risks they face and continue to make a positive impact in the communities they serve.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Using instructional design for training volunteers

A volunteer training method

Lately, I’ve been researching the world of instructional design. I’ve been specifically trying to find a way that it can be used for improving the training of volunteers.

What is instructional design? Basically, it sets out ways to ensure students gain the most knowledge and understanding from a given training.

There are a number of different methods (or “taxonomies”) of instructional design out there. The most well-known – and the one I like most – is Bloom’s Taxonomy. Granted, I may like it because of a website that explains it using clips from the TV show “The Big Bang Theory.”

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a six-level framework for classifying different types of learning objectives, each building on the last. It can be a useful tool for training volunteers in a wide range of organizations. Here’s how it works:

Remembering—The first level of Bloom’s Taxonomy is "Remembering," which involves having the volunteer recall information they already know, and associating that with the new information. In a seniors home, for example, a trainer might remind volunteers about their basic first aid training, before going on to discuss the specific emergencies that are common to the home.

Understanding—Level two is "Understanding”; comprehending the meaning of the information that has been learned. In other words, taking it in at a gut level rather than just by rote. For instance, if volunteers know why a certain procedure is used, they are more likely to remember and embrace it. Telling before and after stories is a really good way to build understanding.

Applying—The third level is "Applying," where the volunteer actually uses the information that has been learned. Practice makes memory. It also increases confidence. By doing a specific thing, rather than being told about it, a volunteer is vastly more likely to both remember all the steps and become confident in their ability to do it.

Analyzing—Next is "Analyzing," which involves breaking down the information and identifying patterns or relationships. In a homeless shelter, for example, volunteers may need to analyze data on the effectiveness of different interventions. We have the information, now what can we learn from it?

Evaluating—Level five of Bloom’s Taxonomy is "Evaluating”. This means making judgments about the value of the information that has been learned as it relates to a specific situation. Consider an animal shelter that has trained their volunteers to always put dogs into the outside run when cleaning the kennels. The community, though, is undergoing a massive heatwave and the run doesn’t have shade. Should the dogs go outside as usual, or should the instructions be altered?

Creating—The sixth and highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy is "Creating," which involves having volunteers use the information that has been learned to create something new. For example, in a homeless shelter, volunteers may need to create new programs or services to meet the evolving needs of clients. Taking the knowledge that they have been trained in, volunteers can come up with programs that meet the clients’ new needs.

Instructional design takes some thought.

As you can see, you need to actually plan out each step as it relates to the information you’re trying to get across. Obviously, some things may not need as much attention, but as you can see from the level five example, even simple things can benefit from applying the various levels.

Using this formula can also help you see the possibilities in using volunteers at their highest capacity. If you include aspects of “Evaluating” and “Creating” in your training, you start to see volunteers as more than just unpaid labour. The process almost forces you to see them as people who can make independent decisions, and who may even be able to help you improve your program.

So here’s a challenge for you.

Pick a process that you need to train volunteers for. Think of ways that you can include each of the six levels in your training. What previous knowledge can you have them build on? Do you have stories that you can tell that will help them understand the value of the information? How can they break down the information to see and learn from the trends? What situations can you suggest where the rules may need to be changed? What new things could the volunteers create using the information they’ve learned?

By structuring training programs around the different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (or some other instructional design method), organizations can ensure that volunteers are effective in their roles. Not only does it improve the quality of volunteer training, but it also empowers volunteers to take on higher responsibilities and, in turn, increase the organization’s impact on their community.

Have fun and let me know if you need help.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Should you hire volunteers?

Hiring from within

I had someone ask me a question recently: "Is it okay to hire volunteers?"

In our current environment of staff shortages and burnout, organizations are scrambling to find qualified staff. I have found, though, many hesitate to tap into a pool of potential staff members that are right in front of them—volunteers.

In many cases, volunteers are seen as unpaid labour. We love them and appreciate what they do for us, but we often discount – or are completely unaware of – the skills they have.

You may very well have the perfect marketing coordinator stocking shelves in your thrift store, or your next executive director walking dogs at your animal shelter. Because we don’t see them doing work that takes a higher level of skill, we often unconsciously feel they don’t have that higher level.

But volunteers can make the very best of employees. Volunteers usually already have strong connections and commitments to the organization. They are already part of the culture, and know how things are done. They care about what you do. That speaks volumes for their potential commitment as an employee. (Read: less turnover.)

Through their volunteer work, they’ve also likely developed a clear understanding of the organization's mission, values and operations. Therefore, they won’t need to adapt themselves to the culture and processes. They’ll be able to hit the ground running and make a positive impact more quickly than a new hire who is still learning about the organization.

Additionally, the organization’s volunteers may already have built relationships with other volunteers and staff, which can be helpful in fostering a positive working environment.

Finally, hiring from within the organization helps to foster a sense of community and inclusiveness, and can help maintain continuity and encourage greater employee engagement and job satisfaction.

Remember, many people volunteer to gain work experience. Why not take advantage of the experience you’ve given them?

There are, of course, some risks involved with hiring volunteers. Sometimes managers overlook the best candidate in favour of someone they already know. This is known as the “familiarity bias.”

This bias can lead to less competent and skilled people getting hired than if you only looked outside the organization. For example, if a soup kitchen is looking for a new kitchen manager, a volunteer who has experience cooking for the program may not have experience in budgeting or inventory management.

So, when considering whether to hire a volunteer, you need to be as careful about reviewing their skills and qualifications for the position as you would if you didn’t have a history with them.

The other challenge that may come up is resentment amongst the other volunteers. Hiring a volunteer, for example, who has been with you for about a year, may cause volunteers who have been around longer to ask why they weren’t hired.

To mitigate this, ensure your hiring process is fair, objective and, most of all, transparent. If other applicants – or even just interested onlookers – know the skills and abilities you were looking for and how the successful applicant met them, any resentment should be negligible.

I’m not saying that you have to hire volunteers. But volunteers can bring valuable skills, perspective, and organizational knowledge. They also need to be held to the same standards as external candidates in terms of skills and qualifications. What I am saying is just don’t forget them.

Know that, even if someone only washes dishes for you, it doesn’t mean they’re incapable of a much more challenging position. Take a second look at them when you start hiring.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Is a fractional volunteer coordinator right for your organization?

Part-time volunteer leaders

The term “fractional volunteer coordinator” is one that most people are unfamiliar with.

Briefly, fractional volunteer coordinators are highly qualified, experienced professionals who come in, part-time, on a contract basis for organizations that may not have the resources – or the need – to have a full-time leader of volunteers in-house.

The time they don’t spend with you, they may spend doing the same thing for one or more other organizations. Thus, the word “fractional”.

The idea of fractional leadership isn’t new. Small and mid-sized companies have been using fractional chief financial officers or chief marketing officers, etc. for decades. This simply moves the concept out of the “C-suite”.

Fractional volunteer coordinators bring the sort of dedication, knowledge and experience that are usually out of reach for smaller social impact organizations.

Understand, however, although the position is contracted, the coordinator isn’t just a consultant. He or she actually do the work of managing your volunteers.

There are significant benefits to your organization in having fractional volunteer coordinators.

The main four are:

1. They bring a significant amount of knowledge and experience with them; more than most organizations would otherwise be able to afford.

2. They are there only for the amount of time you need them, so you aren’t scrambling to find work for them during quiet periods.

3. Being a contract position, you have more flexibility and control. Not only do you choose the number of hours they work, but those can be changed according to operational need and the position can be terminated much more easily and more amicably than with an employee. There is also no long-term commitment.

4. It is less expensive. Although you will be paying more per hour than you might with an employee, you are not responsible for filling their entire time, for their benefits, employment insurance, vacation pay, etc., not to mention you will be spending less time on paperwork. Easier, cheaper and you get top quality service to further your organization’s mission.

If this is the first time you’ve heard of a fractional volunteer coordinator, how would you know if you need one? Here are indicators that this option is right for your organization.

• You’re facing budgetary constraints or uncertainty—Tight budgets and financial uncertainty are a relatively normal part of business for social impact organizations. This is especially true for new, growing and specialty agencies. Financial resources to hire a full-time leader of volunteers are often unavailable. This means having the executive director or some other staff member manage the volunteers as and when they can. Besides taking time away from their own duties, this can cause inconsistencies in the program which might impact your mission and/or clients.

• Your volunteer program needs high-level guidance—A strategic benefit comes from having an experienced person in this position. Oftentimes, especially in small and growing organizations, volunteer programs lack a cohesive plan. This is common when the program is steered by multiple people or by someone who is either not trained or not solely dedicated to the volunteers.

This is not a knock on the person(s) running your program now, just a reason to bring on someone with education and experience in this particular field. If you believe your volunteers are important to achieving your mission, you owe it to your organization to hire someone who specializes in managing them well.

• You’ve been wanting more organizational and financial flexibility—Running a social impact organization takes an incredible amount of agility. You need to pivot and change continually in order to deal with altered funding or unforeseen opportunities or challenges. Locking your organization into a yearly salary commitment for a leader of volunteers can be hard. Hiring an on-demand fractional volunteer coordinator allows you to use your resources where and when you need them most.

Do you have a seasonal component to your charity (such as the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign) or a big event coming up that requires an influx of temporary volunteers? You can give more or fewer hours to a fractional volunteer coordinator to match your needs. It is a very flexible situation. During times you don’t need a volunteer coordinator, you can divert those resources into other areas.

• You need more decision-making freedom—If hiring a full-time staff member is challenging, so is firing one. If the relationship doesn’t work out, separating from them can be an uncomfortable and acrimonious process.

On the other hand, if a fractional volunteer coordinator isn’t working out, it is much easier to just terminate the contract and move on to someone else.

The same is true as your organization grows and your needs shift. You may decide you need a full-time leader. With a fractional volunteer coordinator, that process is easy and painless. In fact, the fractional volunteer coordinator will usually be happy to help train and settle your new hire into the position.

Is this for you? Maybe, maybe not.

Every social impact organization is different. A fractional volunteer coordinator may or may not suit your needs. Knowing that they exist, however, at least allows you to consider your options.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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