Build Capacity Before Recruiting Volunteers

build capacity

When talking about growing a volunteer program most people immediately think of bringing in more volunteers. Growing a volunteer program, though, involves more than just recruiting. It requires you to build capacity.

There is no point in increasing the number of volunteers in your program unless you have the capacity to effectively engage those volunteers.

You build capacity through three key things: strategic thinking, advance preparation, and mastering delegation.

Start with strategic thinking.

Ask yourself: what specific impacts does the organisation want to make? List those impacts in priority order. Which of those impacts has the highest priority? What tasks are required to make that impact? How many volunteers, with what specific skill sets or experience, are needed to complete those tasks? Starting from this end, you can develop a clear idea of what and whom you need to achieve your mission.

The alternative is to recruit a bunch of random people, then have them do whatever tasks happen to be most urgent at that moment. Note I said urgent. Not necessarily important. We all tend to pay more attention to tasks that are urgent, even if they have far less importance than others. By thinking strategically, it’s easier to focus on the things that will make the greatest difference.

Strategic thinking helps you know exactly what tasks and people you need to make the greatest impact. You build capacity by pruning out tasks that don’t advance the mission and by saving time on recruiting and training people who don’t have the capability necessary to do the tasks well.

Now let’s work on your advance preparation.

Since you’ve thought through everything, you now know what tasks need to be done to accomplish the mission, and what skills and abilities the people doing those tasks will need. At this point, you can start doing the preparation necessary.

Write or review the role descriptions. Are they focused on the most important tasks? Do you have a clear idea of who would fit those roles best? Do you know where those people spend their time? What type of posting will attract the attention of those specific people?

Think about training. What onboarding and training will be required for each role? Can any of that be done online? By recorded video? Prepare the training before you begin recruiting.

Will other staff be involved with supervising volunteers? Ensure that they are on-board with the idea, are up-to-date on best practices, and are kept in the communications loop.

This story is a good illustration of what happens when advance preparation isn’t done well.

I applied to volunteer at a local art gallery. I went through the background checks and the training, then I showed up for my first shift. When I checked in, the woman I was told would be my supervisor looked at me blankly. She had no idea I was coming, and had no idea what to do with me. She gave me some “make work” project to get me through the shift. “Okay”, I thought, “it’s just the first shift; there was a communication breakdown somewhere. Next shift will be better.” Only it wasn’t. And when I showed up for my third shift, I caught a look of annoyance cross her face. I turned on my heel and left. Never volunteered there again, and didn’t have anything good to say about the gallery when anyone asked. Preparing in advance is vital!

Finally, to build capacity you must become a master of delegation.

The goal of delegation is to focus more of your time and effort on the tasks that only you can do. That’s where you’re most valuable to the organisation. It doesn’t mean that you’re offloading responsibility for those tasks. That still rests with you and always will. But there are many day-to-day tasks that can – and should – be done by other hands. The CEO of General Motors, for example, doesn’t work on the assembly line, but she is still responsible for the safety and efficiency of every vehicle they sell.

There are five things that you need to provide for delegation to be effective: the specific result required, a deadline, all the necessary resources, support and space. With these five things, explained in more detail in my blog “Common Delegation Traps”, staff or volunteers can take many of your day to day tasks off your plate so that you can focus on strengthening relationships and ensuring best practices are met.

And doing more strategic thinking and advance prep!

Let’s face it, there’s never an equal balance between volunteers and capacity. In an ideal world, the number of volunteers you have and your capacity to engage them effectively would be equally balanced. You’d have enough work to keep everyone busy, but not so much that people and systems become overloaded.

But it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you’ll have more volunteers than capacity. At other times, you’ll have unused capacity. Your program will be healthier and more impactful if you aim for having slightly more volunteers than you have capacity. The alternative is a organisation that is losing out on impact because of unused capacity.

Almost all of us would like to have more volunteers. Recruiting without taking the time to build capacity, though, means that volunteers will leave as often as they arrive. And that won’t increase your impact!

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