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.

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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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