I love mistakes. They might not be fun to make, but I sure do learn a lot from them. Take the structure of the volunteer program I am overseeing this summer as an example. I ran it how it has been run for years: like a summer employment opportunity. This meant having interviews and orientations at the very beginning of the summer, the goal being to assemble our “staff,” then have them volunteer on a regular basis for the next two and a half months. So far, it has been successful overall, but not nearly as successful as it could be. I have, however, started to notice a marked decline in overall volunteer availability and general work ethic.
As you can see, the total number of volunteer hours per week is steadily declining. Relatedly, we have experienced about a 28% rate of attrition (of 21 volunteers, 6 are no longer able to volunteer). This causes us to ask more of other volunteers or to go without volunteers.
So, what did we do wrong this year? We expected too much, and we didn’t anticipate attrition. Fortunately, we are still receiving plenty of volunteer applications, so finding new volunteers isn’t an issue. However, I believe tweaking the structure of the volunteer program to make it more agile could naturally preclude such issues. Here’s what we will be doing next year:
Segmenting the summer
Next year, we will experiment with hosting two volunteer sessions: May through June and July through August. We are currently treating the entire summer as a single commitment. By doing this, we are asking teens to make a large and vague commitment. Ideally, this wouldn’t be an issue, since they would have a clear understanding of their summer plans, a reliable means of transportation, and an unquenchable desire to donate their free time to the library. But life is messy and things come up.
Another approach is to break the summer down into sets of smaller commitments. For instance, teens can much more reasonably commit to volunteering for 30 hours in June than to an indeterminate number of hours throughout the entire summer. This also gives parents and guardians a clearer idea of what the commitment will be. We’re hoping that by giving teens a concrete commitment within a set period of time will make the experience more enjoyable for everyone involved.
Having a natural stopping point built into the summer will allow teens to exit the program smoothly — or to decide actively to continue volunteering. Hopefully, this will help weed out those who think they want to volunteer more than they actually do while retaining those who enjoy the realities of volunteering.
Offering multiple orientations throughout the summer
This year, we offered two separate orientations before the summer began. We were hoping that teens would be able to attend one or the other depending on their schedule. For the most part, we were correct, and having orientations just at the beginning of the summer would be fine so long as no new volunteers are added throughout the summer.
Even though we didn’t segment the summer this year, we will be offering a mid-summer orientation. This will let us formally introduce new volunteers to the program. At each orientation we talk about organizational values, discuss Summer Reading, do plenty of icebreakers, eat snacks, and get to know each other. This is an important step in building a volunteer program into a volunteer community. We will be changing our approach to orientations as well, but that is a topic for a longer post.
Hosting more events for volunteers
We have traditionally thrown a volunteer appreciation party at the end of each summer as a way to celebrate our volunteers and express our gratitude. We will be changed things up this year and threw the party in the middle of the summer. Our reasoning behind this is that the party boosts morale, engenders good will, and helps the teens bond. These are benefits we believe would help combat burnout and maintain positive momentum. It also gave us an opportunity to check with the volunteers in an informal setting.
At the end of the summer, we will host a resume and interview development course specifically for summer volunteers. However, it may be more effective to host events like this throughout the summer. The closer a non-entertainment based event is to the beginning of school, the less likely it is that teens will attend them.
There are, of course, many other ways of keeping volunteers engaged with you, the library, and each other besides parties and life skills events. For instance, one cost effective solution would be to host a book club for volunteers. Another would be to schedule a time for the volunteers to meet as a group with a high level library administrator to ask him or her questions and learn about the organization’s leadership.