Joint application design sessions for volunteer programs

Problem-solving as a group

Digging through my files today, I came across an old invitation to a joint application design (JAD) session.

Many loops back on my very wiggly career path, I worked for a software design company. They often held JAD sessions with the stakeholders of their clients.

A JAD session is a useful tool that allows everyone involved a say in how a process (or a piece of software) is designed, so it meets everyone’s needs. It got me thinking about how we could use JAD sessions for volunteer programs.

Currently, most volunteer programs are developed in an ad hoc fashion. Someone sees a need and throws together a program to fill it. Then someone else sees a different need, and tacks their solution onto the current program. Then someone else sees another need and so on – you get where I’m going with this. The end result is a hodgepodge of pieces that kinda sorta work together. It isn’t integrated, and it’s usually inefficient and time-consuming.

Programs that use up time and resources limit your mission’s impact.

What would it look like if, instead, everyone affected got together in a single room (virtual or otherwise) to develop a comprehensive list of needs, and brainstormed ideas that will meet them? All the needs in one integrated, smoothly functioning program. In other words, a JAD session for volunteer programs.

How does it work?

Start with identifying who your stakeholders are—volunteers, of course, and the leader of volunteers as well as any staff members who supervise, train or are otherwise responsible for tasks and outcomes from the volunteers. There are executive directors or board members who are responsible for providing funding and other resources and clients or community members who are impacted by the program. Anyone else?

Once you have the list of stakeholders, pick a roughly equal number of representatives from each group. The total should be about eight to 12 people to ensure you get a wide range of ideas and perspectives. If you have more than that, it can become too difficult to manage and will break up into side conversations.

Select at least one person from each stakeholder group who is comfortable speaking up in discussions, otherwise certain points of view might not get heard. It's not necessary to have an agenda, but it is vital to have a specific goal for the meeting.

JADs are designed to be loose and collaborative, so a strict meeting agenda can be counter-productive. Knowing what you need to accomplish during the session, though, is imperative.

If your goal is fairly small (ie: improve the recruitment process), the entire thing can be done in a single meeting. If, on the other hand, it’s large, like rebuilding the entire volunteer program, it is better to break it into a few different sessions, and work on one aspect at a time, with a final meeting to tie it all together.

Set specific “rules of engagement”

One could be that people must leave the hierarchy at the door. If a senior management person comes in and rides on their authority, it will be hard for others to speak up and the result will suffer. Other rules could be that everyone must be engaged, everyone must listen and respect other viewpoints and phones must be turned off ,or at least ignored.

Allow disagreements, but keep them objective and fact-based

When people have needs, emotions can run high. Respectful disagreements allow groups to objectively evaluate ideas. Determine what parts of an idea are strong and what parts need to be worked on. If things turn personal, though, ideas get forgotten as people take sides or become defensive. If you keep to observable facts, the ideas – and solutions – remain the focus.

Still can’t picture how JAD sessions for volunteer programs would work? Here’s a simple example.

A volunteer mentions he’s finding the tasks he does boring and wishes he could learn skills he could add to his resume. Is it possible to allow volunteers to take training?

A board member says the organization only have a set amount of funding for training, and she feels it would be better spent on staff members.

The volunteer coordinator asks if it’s possible to raise more money and a staff member says he’s already swamped and just doesn’t have time for more fundraising.

The volunteer suggests they train him to do grant-writing and he can raise the funds not only for his own training but for the organization as a whole.

This scenario shows how easy it can be to solve challenging problems when everyone comes together.

Separately, the volunteer might ask for training and be turned down. He’d become frustrated and might quit, without understanding the reasons behind why he was denied. The staff member might be asked to raise more money but, already overworked, he simply wouldn’t have the ability to make it happen. Everyone would be doing their best, but with limited perspectives, the problem would continue.

That’s the power of a JAD session. When discussions happen in real time, and with input from everyone, good solutions become much easier and faster.

Imagine the process applied to your entire volunteer program. Try it.

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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