What I Wish I Knew: Supervising Volunteers

There were many lessons learned when supervising volunteers. Read more about what I found useful and what I wish I had known beforehand! The fourth in a series about what I wish I knew about supervising.

Nothing prepares you for supervising a group of volunteers better than working for a Fraternity. I know this to be true. I have been both a Fraternity volunteer and the executive director of a national Fraternity. And when I was doing both roles, there was much I wish I had done better.

In higher education, those of us who work with students are used to managing people who defer to the most senior person in the room. Usually that’s you! But what do you do when you work with people who are older, leaders in their own right, or people who you consider peers and friends?

We still need to get the work done, at the end of the day. Regardless if it’s a fraternity brother or sister, a colleague from a different college or staff and faculty on your campus, there are many lessons to learn when supervising volunteers.

Lessons Learned and those I Wish I Had Learned Earlier

I am going to focus on my experience as an executive director, but I believe these examples transcend workplace. For instance, I have worked with volunteers on conferences planning teams and had the same outcome. In all cases, I believe there are lessons to be learned and shared when working with volunteers.

What I Wish I Knew: Intuition Only Goes So Far

Most people volunteer for organizations where they have some sense of connection or history. Some people end up volunteering without really knowing or understanding the bigger picture. Others get roped into the work and have to be cajoled through most of the work and expectations.

I have experienced all of these people while working for my Fraternity. The world of fraternal organizations is full of well-intentioned alumni and alumnae members who want to give back, but don’t really know how. So they sign up, expect a little instructions and will do what they need to do to make everything go great, right?

Well it was my experience that this isn’t exactly true. What sometimes happens is that people will show up, say they know what they are doing and then ask question after question after they should already have started their work. Or they get caught up in the ‘well, when I was in the chapter…’ stories. Or they do the work themselves because that is what they were used to doing.

A kitten standing up with the text But...What am I supposed to do now?
Not knowing what to do can be frustrating. Making sure volunteers have specific, discreet instructions with boundaries will help avoid this situation!

Intuition is great to acknowledge in volunteers. But I have found that you need to give specific, discreet instructions with boundaries. And that regardless of former roles and affiliations, everyone needs instructions. Everyone.

This is because expectations have changed since your alums were in college. Not to mention the laws. And usually the learning outcomes, too! Don’t be afraid to give more details than you think, because intuition of what an answer was back in the day might be different nowadays.

What I Wish I Knew: There Is No Such Thing as Too Much Information

Someone who is donating his or her time might have other competing priorities. I know that when I was a volunteer, I would try to give back to the Fraternity between errands, my actual student affairs job, seeing family and trying to have a dating life. So the details of what and where I needed to go would often slip my mind.

The cast of the movie Grease from the Summer Loving scene.
Tell them more, tell them more, what do they need to wear and when do they show up?

And when I was the executive director, I had forgotten this experience. I wish I had a volunteer expectations email template that I could fill in with the details for every volunteer role I needed filled. In this way, it could be sent when someone volunteered and gave details I took for granted as the planner. Like time, days, locations, parking, food!

We can all do better with helping our volunteers be on-time and know their roles before arriving. And perhaps the consequences when they don’t follow-through.

What I Learned: Everyone Who Wants to Volunteer Doesn’t Deserve To

Not all volunteers are created equal. If you’re lucky and cultivate your members, you can find people who will do exactly what you need, when you need it and for the time you need it done. And all is great in the world!

And sometimes you get someone who takes more time to manage than you have to spare. Who doesn’t follow instructions. And someone who might need to be removed from this role sooner than later. If your volunteer isn’t doing the work to the expectations shared, don’t feel like you need to keep this person around. Like for an extra minute! This is why expectation sharing is so important, so that if you do have to hold people accountable, there should be no surprises.

Britney Spears GIF "No Thank You"
Like Britney says, No, Thank You is a good enough answer.

And like any paid staff, document, document, document. Perhaps a new opportunity will arise that better matches the skills but be firm and say goodbye for now.

What I Learned: Cultivate Your Members to Volunteer or Give Back in Some Form

Our current members are future volunteers. I used to remind my members about this expectation when I met with them. What do any of your members know about volunteering? Do you ask any of them to give their time, effort and energy to helping run the organization after graduation?

A great way to build this culture is to appoint student volunteer coordinators who manage other undergrad members and alumni volunteers. Give a perk, like reduced dues, or waived fees for an upcoming event. I was proud of the way I was able to include undergrads in my work, but there is so much more I could have done. Introducing this membership expectation will only help groups grow and attract men who want to serve others.

Want to Explore This Topic Further?

I will explore tips for first-time supervisors, next time about supervising professional staff. You can read my related content about advising students and supervising students, or read through any of my current posts about supervision. Feel free to ask questions in the comments below!

In addition, I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.

Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.

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