Unclear Volunteer Roles and Responsibilities Equals Volunteer Risk
A common challenge associations face is properly preparing newly appointed association executives and others by training them for their new volunteer roles and responsibilities. The most obvious way to do this is only to take on personnel that already fit the role, but this is not always easy. Frequently, a thorough description of the role's demands and requirements are not provided. In the case of volunteers, there is not always the opportunity to place someone with the proper skills in time.
Although increasingly more associations are treating onboarding volunteers in a more formal manner, unclear volunteer roles and responsibilities remain a common challenge. If the role of a volunteer is not clearly explained in detail beforehand, and that criteria maintained throughout the selection process, at best the role's duties become vulnerable. At worst, the entire organization is exposed to volunteer risk.
But just how dangerous is volunteer risk due to unspecified, unclear, or ignored volunteer roles and responsibilities? Can it really be that bad?
Let's look at some examples of how the role of the volunteer impacts an association depending upon the type of position filled.
The Risks of Not Communicating Volunteer Roles and Responsibilities
Each volunteer roles and responsibilities type shares its own kind and degree of risk because the terms and structure of association volunteer roles and hierarchy vary by the organization. To simplify the point, though, we have broken these volunteer role types down into the following recognizable groups:
There is a significant risk in not knowing the role of a volunteer operating on a board. Board members carry both a lot of power and responsibility within the organization, so there can be troubling consequences if they are not adequately oriented. If a board member spends too much time trying to get familiar with their position rather than doing the actual work, the organization will begin to suffer.
Prepare a package of information that outlines the board's duties, including those charged to each board member individually. Also include all policies, by-laws, legal requirements, and conflict of interest declarations. Have each board member sign off that they have read and understood these critical details. Such preparation should reduce the risk of association volunteers operating at this level represent.
Directors who are appointed to oversee (or solely serve as) departments, projects, and other points of interest within the organization answer to the board (if they are not also on it.) Failing to clearly outline volunteer roles and responsibilities for such functions often result in whatever a director is managing going off course or. This runs the risk of returning biased or skewed (if not outright false) results, inaccurate board reports, missing deadlines, wasted budgets, and so on.
Because what a director must manage is focused on a particular area or subject, unclear volunteer roles and responsibilities can lead to the wrong person ending up in the position. Although they may appear well-suited during an initial interview, without strict criteria for what the volunteer must be capable of and how they must do it, it is possible to put someone in a directorship who is incapable of performing appropriately.
Directors should be provided with a mission statement and criteria for establishing or following a process to achieve the intended results. This will detail the skills required to get the job done. Guidelines for how they are to communicate with and report to other relevant aspects of the organization are also necessary. If any of this is unfamiliar or confusing to the director, they clearly are not the right person for the position unless you have the ability and willingness to educate them to the required standard.
Much like directors, committees and task forces are charged with working towards a specific goal. This could be anything from researching the possibility of taking the organization in a new direction to overseeing all social media operations. The possibilities are endless, but the risk can also be significant.
These volunteer groups are charged with tasks that are important enough to formalize within the organization's structure but do not necessarily require direct oversight from the board or a director. As such, they may have a budget and internal hierarchy and structure. This means their volunteer roles and responsibilities can have a direct impact on an association's funding that goes beyond the outcomes of what they are intended to produce. It also means the nature of how the group runs means their mistakes may not get noticed until the time comes to report their progress or final results.
If their intent is to seek out and provide information to the overall organization, consider the harm that can result if a participant's role was improperly filled. Think of the time and money (and, potentially, credibility) that can be lost because a volunteer did not understand what they were supposed to be doing or did not have the skills and experience to do it. Clarity is incredibly important -- better an empty seat on a committee than the wrong person filling it.
Because of the specificity of the sort of goals task forces and committees are usually charged with, it is arguably best to fill them through a rigorous interview and appointment process. The tighter and more vital and focused their mandate, the narrower and less forgiving this process should be.
When most people outside of the association sector hear the word "volunteer," it is the so-called 'front-line' volunteer they probably have in mind. These are individuals who do not necessarily have professional ties to a not-for-profit but donate their time out of interest. They are the temporary 'warm bodies' who do the grunt work at events, flesh out committee workforces, and so on. They also represent the area where volunteer roles and responsibilities are most muddled.
When an association needs someone to work a station at an event, help with a mass mail-out, or otherwise needs a bunch of people to help out, it is the front-line volunteer they call on. The process of onboarding such a volunteer role is usually little more than asking "why do you want to help out?" and "can you show up on time?" Because the role of a volunteer in this capacity has little access to association resources and the like, most people assume that the volunteer risk they represent is minimal.
This perception could not be more wrong.
When front-line volunteers are utilized, they are representing your association as surely as a board member. However, less time is spent educating them on their volunteer roles and responsibilities for their function. They are not usually given a handbook and set of policies to read, for example. While they may be required to undergo a brief orientation on the task at hand, they typically are not trained on how to represent the organization to the public. This means there is a much greater risk of front-line volunteers acting inappropriately in a manner that can harm the association's brand identity and public image. In some instances, there can even be issues of liability to the organization.
How to Clarify the Responsibilities and Role of a Volunteer
Never assume that any volunteer brought into your association -- regardless of level and previous experience -- knows everything they need. Every new experience means there are new things to learn and understand, including what one's duties and their implications are.
No matter what the role of a volunteer may be, always provide them with documentation outlining what they will be doing and how they must do it, who they are responsible to, and how they must conduct themselves (at the very least.) Associations also have to be prepared to provide training and education that brings volunteers up to speed on their role and related duties. This is especially relevant to those positions that are more often filled by availability rather than capability.
Do not allow your organization's operations and identity to suffer. Associations cannot afford to assume that volunteer roles and responsibilities are already understood and agreed to.
Lori Gotlieb of Lori Gotlieb Consulting is conducting a related event, Managing Volunteer Risk: What Keeps You Up at Night?, in March 2017. It will address several key points relevant to this article. Click on the button to follow to learn more.
CSAE provides some books that address the importance and process involved with reducing volunteer risk regarding certain volunteer roles and responsibilities. Sandi L. Humphrey, CAE presents an orientation guide for new board members in her book, Making Your Mark as a Not-for-Profit Board Member: An Orientation Guide for New Members of Not-for-Profit Boards, Second Edition, and she also wrote Guide to Positive Staff-Board Relations for Directors of Non-Profit Organizations - 4th Edition with Donald G. Evans, and Duties and Responsibilities of Directors of Not-for-Profit Organizations, 4th Edition by Watson Advisors. Check out these titles if you want to learn more.