Managing Volunteers: How to Create a Great Team Abroad
Volunteers get a lot of attention for their good work around the world, but in order to create that optimal volunteer experience, a lot goes on behind the scenes. Whether you are a paid employee who’s tasked with managing volunteers or a project manager for an organization in the field, you have to navigate different personalities, skills, and expectations to get the work done.
Managing volunteers isn’t that much different than managing staff in the office , except one big difference—volunteers are generally unpaid, and sometimes even paying for the experience. And in many situations, the expectations are high and there aren’t always clear deliverables. So, how do you ensure that volunteers get the most out of their experience and get the job done? Here are a few strategies I’ve used to make sure both managers and volunteers have a great experience.
Be Realistic About Timing
The debate is still on about the most efficient and impactful amount of time for volunteers to commit to a project. Some say 3-6 weeks is adequate, and others argue that 6 months to a year is the best amount of time to ensure volunteer growth and an impact on the ground. So, consider what’s best for your organization, and communicate what a realistic amount of time for your organization is before bringing your volunteers on board.
Do seriously weigh the costs and benefits of “revolving door” volunteers who are just in for a day or two. Unless you really need labor or funding, or they can really bring resources to your organization, the “hit and run” style of volunteering means your organization often ends up giving more than it should to accommodate to the volunteers. It’s not always good for the long-term goals of an organization, and it definitely promotes skepticism in the local communities.
Orient to a New Environment
When volunteers arrive, the first thing you should do is to host an orientation, both on your organization and on the culture in which you’ll be working. (You’d be surprised at how many people arrive without basic in-country knowledge.) Many organizations skip this step, but orientations are critical—they serve as a foundation for volunteers and help them understand daily operations, team goals, and what is expected of them.
As part of this process, it can be good to have an entry interview with each volunteer, gauging their skill levels and how they can be most effective. This is also the time to clarify your policies as an organization and key details, such as your policy on confidentiality and responsible use of social media. (It’s great for volunteers to use social media to raise awareness, but it’s important to make sure the information volunteers disclose online doesn’t put your organization or local communities at risk.)
A comprehensive orientation also helps you create a culture of open communication from the moment of arrival, letting your volunteers know you’re there to listen if they have an issue or if they need clarification. To sustain this culture, try setting up weekly volunteer meetings to talk through expectations and issues, or use the time over meals to do a check-in about the temperature of where everyone is at.
Manage Their Expectations
While working in Cambodia, I managed a group of volunteers who told me midway through our research trip, “We want to build a library.” This was an odd request, as the village asked for farming tools, not reading materials. It was a well-intentioned suggestion, but who would actually take care of this library when we left—and with a low literacy rate, who would actually read the books? Not to mention, that wasn’t our purpose on the ground, nor did the community want a library.
Volunteers can come in with a lot of expectations: that your organization should run seamlessly, that it should run like a Western organization, or that it should be doing something more or different . To prevent conflicts that can arise from these expectations, you need to be very clear about what you can and can’t provide, what your goals are and are not, and what resources you will and won’t have access to. The more volunteers understand about your organization, the more on board they’ll be with your projects and goals.
Along similar lines, it’s crucial to manage your volunteers’ expectations about the outcome of their trip: They are doing something great, but they aren’t going to change the world overnight. Sometimes fresh volunteers get discouraged and frustrated when they don’t see immediate change, and they can be quick to blame the host organization or the volunteer manager. By setting expectations up front, you can help them understand that this work takes time, and that they are a part of a much larger goal or movement by contributing their time.
Create a System of Evaluation and Accountability
While volunteering positions are unpaid, they’re often a stepping stone to other nonprofit work , so it’s important to ensure that your volunteers learn and grow during the process. Similarly, though you’re not managing paid employees, you have a job to get done, so you need to set up a system to ensure volunteers finish the project they have set out to do.
Just as you would in an office, you should set up target goals and deadlines, have follow-up meetings, and have mid-term check ins. You may also want to consider having volunteers sign a code of conduct or document highlighting their commitment (more symbolic than legal), so you can remind them what they set out to do on their arrival.
If you are having trouble with volunteers, talk to them directly as you would an employee, and if there is no change, speak with their sponsoring organization (usually its a school or placement company). If that doesn’t work, and they are wasting your time and resources, have broken a policy, or simply are not pulling their weight, then, yes, you can fire them . This is hard for a lot of managers (because the whole idea of volunteering is about being selfless), but there are times when a volunteer does more harm than good, and it’s of no benefit to anyone.
Be Honest About Follow-Up
Among tears and hugs, volunteers often say “I promise to come back, I’ll never forget you,” to the local community and staff. But however moved they are by the experience, they may not have the resources or the time to return when they get back home. That’s OK, but encourage them to be realistic about what they can do once they get home—whether it’s organize a small fundraiser, giving a few talks to encourage other volunteers, or nothing at all. It can be good to develop an action plan with a timeline before they leave, so you both know what to expect and can follow up on it. That said, you can encourage volunteers to stay involved and connected by maintaining a listserv, Facebook group, or Twitter feed.
And as a side note, make sure you are honest about the follow-up you can do on behalf of your volunteers. It’s great to be a reference or write letters of recommendation for your volunteers if you can, but if your time doesn’t allow for recommending everyone (or if you’re not comfortable with it), be honest and let them know.
Giving your volunteers a great experience requires a lot of planning, follow-up, and communication. Be practical, prepared, and honest, and both your volunteer base and the organization can benefit from doing good.
Photo of volunteers working courtesy of Visions Service Adventures .
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author