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Performance Management of Volunteers

by KEVIN H. JOHNSON with foreword by JAZ GHAG

Managers of volunteers must keep in mind that we are talking about the key practices that make up a high-performance work system, not the traditional carrot-and-stick approach.
As I look back on working with my youth group I can honestly say, “Those were amazing times!” I witnessed youth experiencing God in new ways for the first time in their lives and expressing wonder in sharing communion with our living God. They were times that included a variety of challenges that every now and then did not turn out as I thought they would. The importance of working closely with a group of youth sponsors was primary in successfully navigating youth ministry. I was blessed by this team of adults and young adults who freely gave of their time to serve as mentors and leaders within the youth ministry. These volunteers and others were incredibly valuable. Without them I would ultimately have been overwhelmed by the immense work of the ministry.

Today, as part of Mission Canada, I see the vast numbers of volunteers that allow ministry to be fulfilled in our Pentecostal churches from coast to coast. The importance of volunteers and our need to involve them on a weekly basis must cause us to look deep and discover even more ways to improve not only our retention of volunteers, but the quality of our volunteers.

Kevin H. Johnson is the lead pastor of SonLife Community Church in Dartmouth, NS. During his studies at Saint Mary’s University, he wrote and submitted a research paper on “Performance Management of Volunteers in the Non-Profit Sector.” Therein he conducted extensive research contrasting and comparing the effects of proven high-performance work practices that have enhanced the performance of paid workers. He then applied these same practices to the performance of volunteer workers. His findings have shown that applying these same principles to the management of volunteers would likely yield organizations that perform better.

Learning how to improve the level of volunteer performance in our ministry settings is of immense value. This provides both excellent results for our ministry and greater satisfaction in the lives of our volunteers. Due to the length of this research, we cannot publish it in its entirety. In my discussion with Kevin Johnson, he suggested that we concentrate on the key findings of his research. Following is an excerpt of his discoveries in this area. —Jaz Ghag


Key Findings
First, the research demonstrates that effective high-performance work systems used for paid staff are also beneficial in managing volunteers. Managers of volunteers must keep in mind that we are talking about the key practices that make up a high-performance work system, not the traditional carrot-and-stick approach.

Second, research is focused on interpersonal and motivational strategies for working with volunteers. It is designed for the retention and satisfaction of the volunteer and does not necessarily improve performance. The distinction being made in this research is that high-performance work systems actually improve volunteer performance in the area of delivering skilled services. In order to deliver skilled services, volunteers need to work according to specific job requirements, which leaves less room for volunteer negligence.

Third, the research indicates there are some very specific practices that non-profit organizations can apply to improve their volunteer effectiveness. Because there are limitations and constraints within any organization’s ability to adopt new systems and behaviours, we will discuss these six practices in light of some of the limitations often encountered by non-profits.

Selective Recruitment
Many non-profit organizations do not have the luxury of recruiting from a pool of applicants. If your choices for volunteers are limited, then you should work harder to orient volunteers to the mission, values and beliefs of the organization during the selection process. This will assist volunteers to function in ways that are consistent with the organization’s goals.

Extensive Training
Training is essential if volunteers are going to carry out their responsibilities properly. Training sessions should explain performance expectations, build skills, and teach problem-solving techniques. Furthermore, managers and staff should be trained in how to work with volunteers. However, training can be expensive, and availability of trainers is often limited. But even on a limited budget, alternative solutions exist—such as training through job shadowing or finding a qualified volunteer whose role is to provide training for other volunteers.

In this study, recognition of volunteers was not shown to be a driver of volunteer effectiveness. While this research is not able to determine the reasons for this, it may be due to the idea that volunteers often have a high affinity with the organizations to which they give their time. Thus, while recognition is likely valued and appreciated, it may not necessarily be a factor that is responsible for improving volunteer performance. Further research is needed to shed light on this. Consequently, it would be wrong to suggest that recognizing and appreciating volunteers holds little value.

Measurement of Volunteer Performance
Measuring performance factors was directly correlated to high volunteer performance. Measuring ensures that important factors for success are under observation and evaluation. If the items being measured are showing signs of concern, managers can address them before performance begins to suffer in a severe manner. Having meaningful measurements also creates an expectation within the volunteer that their work is significant to the organization and important enough to be evaluated.

Volunteers are considered “involved” when they are encouraged to be part of decision-making, are treated like full members, receive information about the organization, and are involved in their own job design. Whereas volunteers expect to be treated differently and also have a greater freedom than paid workers, letting them contribute to how their work is carried out, treating them like members of the organization, and sharing information freely with them will improve performance. Volunteers tend to be more effective when they feel their contribution is as valued as paid staff.

Transformational Leadership
Effective leadership is especially important for the organization facing the challenges of delivering services through volunteers. Choosing and implementing a high-performance work system is no small task, so having capable leadership is critical to seeing this accomplished effectively. Non-profit managers should study and apply the principle of transformational leadership to assist them in their work with volunteers. Research indicates that this style of leadership can be learned, so there are many benefits to the manager and the performance of the organization’s volunteers if leadership skills are improved.

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