JAD Sessions for Volunteer Programs

JAD sessions for volunteer programs

Digging through my files today, I came across an old invitation to a JAD session. Many loops back on my very wiggly career path, I worked for a software design company. They often held JAD (joint application design) 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, while it’s being designed, so that 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 on to the current program. And then someone else sees a need and – you get where I’m going with this. The end result is a hodge podge 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 brainstorm ideas that will meet them? All the needs. In one integrated, smoothly functioning program. In other words, JAD sessions for volunteer programs!

How does it work?

Start with identifying who your stakeholders are.

Volunteers, of course, and the leader of volunteers. Any staff members who supervise, train or are otherwise responsible for tasks and outcomes from the volunteers. Executive Directors or board members who are responsible for providing funding and other resources. 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 8 – 12 people to ensure that 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; that phones must be turned off or at least ignored, etc.

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, and 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.

Volunteer mentions that he’s finding the tasks that he does boring and wishes he could learn skills that he could add to his resume. Is it possible to allow volunteers to take training? Board member says that they only have X amount of funding for training, and she feels it would be better spent on staff members. Volunteer coordinator asks if it’s possible to raise more money. Staff member says that he’s already swamped and just doesn’t have time for more fundraising. Volunteer suggests that 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 is 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.

When discussions happen in real time, and with input from everyone, good solutions become much easier and faster. Imagine that process applied to your entire volunteer program. That’s the power of a JAD session! Try it!

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