Every “I Have A Dream” program relies on the assistance of volunteers. The extent of this reliance varies widely from program to program depending on factors such as the size of the local pool of potential volunteers, the Program’s need for additional hands, the staff’s ability to manage a volunteer corps, and the scope of the program’s programmatic objectives.
Don’t assume that volunteers are free. Volunteers, while unpaid, require significant time and energy to recruit, select, train, and supervise. To accomplish this, every program should develop clear procedures for its volunteer program. The steps outlined below are a guide to help programs use volunteers effectively.
Identify potential volunteer jobs
Volunteers have filled an almost limitless variety of positions in “I Have A Dream” programs. Volunteers serve as tutors, mentors, chaperones, office assistants, fundraisers, and special events coordinators, to name just a few examples. The possible contributions of volunteers are as broad as the interests and skills of the volunteers themselves.
Not all volunteers, however, will know exactly how they want to contribute, and each program will have specific needs that must be filled. The program leadership, with input from staff members, must identify the program’s volunteer needs and create procedures for responding to inquiries about volunteering. To do this, first think about the work the program needs done:
Is there work that staff are not qualified to do themselves?
The very entrepreneurial and comprehensive nature of the IHDF Program means there will be types of work to be done that no one on staff knows how to do. Do you need help or expertise planning fundraising events? This may be a good responsibility for an enthusiastic volunteer with relevant experience.
Are there areas where there is too much work for staff to do alone?
In these circumstances, consider how a volunteer could work with the staff to extend staff resources. For example, if the PC wants to send a note to parents every month regarding their Dreamer’s progress in the after-school program, this can be a valuable but time-consuming task that is easily put aside so that the PC can handle more pressing issues. A volunteer could easily organize and complete this job in a few hours each month.
Are there areas where volunteers could initiate new programs that the staff does not have the time to undertake?
There is not a program coordinator who couldn’t list numerous things they would love to do, but simply don’t have the time and resources to take on. For example, volunteers can plan a community service program for Dreamers, organize Dreamer sports teams, or develop a young associates committee to plan fundraisers.
Once a good list of potential volunteer jobs is developed, another fundamental question is determining whether it is appropriate to use a volunteer rather than a paid staff member for a particular task.
Assessing when to use a volunteer or paid staff
Full time versus part time. Does the job require a full-time person or can it be accomplished by one or more part time people? Filling a full-time position with a volunteer is usually difficult. Volunteers typically desire more flexibility in their commitment and often have competing responsibilities they cannot abandon for a non-paying position.
Special skills. Does the task require special skills or training that the staff does not possess? If so, the program may be able to recruit a volunteer with that expertise. However, it may better serve the program to pay for the professionalism. For example, some programs have hired professional teachers or tutors to provide intensive remedial instruction in the summer program.
Reliability. While many programs have been very pleased with the commitment of their volunteers, others have found that volunteers are less reliable and don’t stay with the program as long as paid staff.
Duration of the assignment. Volunteers are great for discrete, short-term assignments. Chaperons are a good example. Many people will be interested in helping with a single Dreamer event that they can easily accommodate to their schedules and that requires a specific time commitment. Volunteering becomes much more onerous once individuals are asked to make longer-term or open-ended commitments to the program.
Urgency of the assignment. It may be unwise to rely on volunteers’ time and services to complete a program with a strict timeframe or inflexible deadline. Often, the first thing to fall by the wayside when conflicting responsibilities arise is one’s volunteer activities. Don’t allow an important program to be left in the lurch because it relied too heavily on volunteer support.
Nature of the job. Consider whether the assignment is the type of activity people typically view as a volunteer position or a paying one. It’s easier to recruit volunteers for volunteer-type activities. For example, being a mentor is a long-term commitment, but most people would not expect to be paid for serving as one.
Availability of non-monetary incentives. Offering incentives for volunteering, other than payment, may help attract qualified volunteers. For example, some programs have persuaded local colleges to offer students course credit or work-study compensation for their work as tutors in IHDF after-school programs.
The first place IHDF programs should go to recruit volunteers is the major partners, collaborators, and initiators of the program.
Recruiting “internally” has several advantages. An affiliated college, the Sponsor’s business or congregation, the Dreamers’ school, the tenants’ association and housing authority (for housing based programs), and the CBO are stakeholders in the success of the program; they have already endorsed the idea and invested their reputation in its success. Recruiting volunteers from these sources is much easier because the individuals know their organization supports IHDF. Volunteers from IHDF’s collaborators have also been pre-screened. For example, if the Sponsor recruits employees to volunteer with IHDF, the Sponsor can vouch for the volunteers’ employment history and habits and may know the individual personally. This relationship should never preempt the formal screening process, but the program may have more success with volunteers who come recommended by IHDF supporters.
Parents and family members should also be among the first people the program turns to in recruiting volunteers. Inviting parents, older siblings, and other family members to volunteer and providing them with tangible, meaningful ways to assist the program is a critical aspect in promoting parental and family involvement. Family participation can accomplish many positive things. Siblings can get involved and volunteering may boost their self-esteem and leadership skills. Parents will better understand the program and its objectives, which should encourage their support of their children’s participation. The program can address Dreamer and family needs more effectively if family involvement is strong. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, family involvement creates the opportunity for IHDF’s goals to affect the entire family.
IHDF programs have also reached well beyond their original network of partners to recruit volunteers. Doing so helps build new partnerships with outside organizations, brings an even greater diversity of volunteers into the organization, and obviously helps fill the need for volunteers.
When approaching a group of potential volunteers, be prepared with a well-planned presentation of IHDF’s mission, concrete ideas about how many volunteers are needed, and a good description of the nature of each volunteer role. At the same time, make it clear that interested volunteers can suggest ways they think they can help out. Recruiting volunteers should begin only after identifying the volunteer positions and planning for the smooth assimilation of new volunteers into the program’s operations.
The screening process for volunteers must be taken very seriously. Establishing a formal screening process will accomplish many objectives. By properly screening candidates, the program is more likely to select qualified volunteers; the formality of the process will impress upon the candidates the importance of their commitment. Screening procedures are also necessary to help protect Dreamers, staff members, other volunteers, and the Project from risks posed by individuals with improper motives for volunteering.
There are several components to a comprehensive screening process, which are listed below. Keep impeccable records at every step of the screening process to document thorough efforts to screen every candidate should any problems arise. One helpful method is to create a file folder for each applicant and a checklist to record the completion of each step in the screening process.
First, every candidate should complete an application form requesting basic biographical data, work and volunteer experience, reasons for volunteering, interests, and availability. It is also helpful to provide the candidate with a job description for each volunteer position.
A sample application form can be found here.
Another element of the screening process is references who can comment on the applicant’s character and potential for working with young people. References are essential for mentor candidates. Programs typically require at least two references and some require up to six personal references for mentor candidates. Employers, supervisors, and people familiar with the individual’s prior volunteer experiences are good references. Family members are not acceptable. Contact all references regarding the applicant. References and personal interviews with the candidate are often the best sources of information about the applicant’s personality, work habits, and commitment. Most programs send an email to the references explaining the IHDF program, accompanied by a standardized form requesting information about the applicant. If any information in the reference raises questions or appears incomplete, follow up with a phone call to the reference and keep careful records of these conversations. A sample reference form can be found here.
Personal interviews provide further insight into a candidate’s background and stability. If possible, have at least two different IHDF personnel conduct interviews with each candidate. The Program Coordinator or whoever is responsible for managing volunteers should be one interviewer. Depending on availability and the Program’s structure, a second interviewer may be the Executive Director or a board member, but parents and Dreamers can also be involved. In Los Angeles, potential volunteers are reviewed by a Dreamer committee; no volunteers are accepted until the committee approves their application. Some possible topics to discuss in the interview include:
- The applicant’s motivation for volunteering
- The skills and qualities the applicant can offer to IHDF
- The applicant’s prior volunteer experiences or experiences with children
- Ways that the applicant would handle difficult situations with a child or react to a child with a different background from the applicant
- Any concerns the applicant has about becoming a volunteer
- The applicant’s placement preferences
In the case of mentors, the interviews are an extremely important step. Some programs conduct one of the screening interviews in the candidate’s home. PCs in Los Angeles meet with the Dreamer, a parent, and the potential mentor for a “getting to know you” interview. A match is made only if all parties agree to it after the initial meeting and a week-long waiting period.
In addition to personal interviews, invite potential volunteers to attend some IHDF events or the after-school program. This will give the volunteers a better idea of the type of work they may be doing.
Programs must consider whether they need to conduct a criminal history background check of applicants for certain volunteer positions. State law governs private youth-serving organization’s access to criminal record information on their volunteer applicants, so procedures for conducting background checks will vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Background checks may be conducted through a name search or a fingerprint search. Typically, a state law enforcement agency acts as the mediary for nonprofits seeking access to criminal history information. There are fees associated with conducting these checks that range from state to state. The time required to process criminal history requests also varies from state to state, but it can take several weeks to two months. Some programs pay these processing fees themselves. Others ask the volunteers to pay the fee. Consult with legal counsel to determine what a particular state’s laws require or allow with respect to accessing criminal histories of prospective volunteers. An established volunteer organization in the program’s community may also be able to provide guidance on how to conduct background checks of volunteer candidates.
Training volunteers serves two primary goals for “I Have A Dream” programs. It acquaints volunteers with the IHDF Program, and it prepares them for their job responsibilities. These are some suggested topics to cover in a volunteer orientation:
- The history of the “I Have A Dream” Foundation
- The history of the particular local program
- The goals and mission of the program
- General background on the Dreamers such as their age, current grade levels, neighborhood or public housing development, the schools they attend, and a general socioeconomic profile
- An introduction of the Program Coordinator and staff
- An organizational chart, office telephone number, and emergency phone numbers
- A site visit to tour the facilities and observe an activity in progress
The best way to achieve the second objective—preparing volunteers for their responsibilities—will vary depending on the volunteer ‘s role. Programs often tailor their trainings to particular types of volunteers. Formal training sessions should always be provided for mentors and tutors.
The topics commonly covered include:
- The job description
- Rules of conduct for volunteers and Dreamers
- Lesson plans and activity ideas
- Information on children’s developmental stages
- Discussion of multiculturalism and socioeconomic diversity
- Building self-esteem
- Confidentiality of Dreamer information
- Proper handling of emergency situations or suspected cases of abuse or neglect
Supervising volunteers provides them with the continuing sense that they are contributing to the program, that their work is important, and that they have someone to talk to if they have questions or concerns. Every volunteer should know who their direct supervisor is, and every supervisor should understand exactly who they are responsible for supervising. Make sure that any staff member who is asked to supervise a volunteer has the time to do it effectively. Supervising volunteers requires making assignments, explaining them to the volunteer, meeting one on one with the volunteer to discuss progress, monitoring their work habits, answering questions, providing on-the-job instruction, and reporting to the PC or volunteer coordinator. Supervision can also occur through regular meetings giving volunteers an opportunity to make progress reports and talk about problems. Supervision is time consuming but essential for the Project’s effective use of volunteers.
Showing the program’s appreciation for the work volunteers do is critical to keeping a solid, committed corps of volunteers. Formal recognition events are just one way to do this. Programs may host an end-of-the-year picnic or dinner to thank the volunteers.