What I Have Learned: Volunteer Management class

In September 2015, I took an excellent class by the College of Extended Learning, SF State. The class is part of the non-profit leadership series, and our instructor, Bruce Marcus, shared his expertise from decades in the non-profit world.

The class covered a broad range of topics, such as the history of voluntarism in the US, and organizational variables by type of non-profit. Most importantly, though, we learned a lot about creating and implementing an effective volunteer program.

Whether you already work with volunteers or not, you can always improve your program in some areas. The different areas are:

  1. Recruitment
  2. Training
  3. Management
  4. Supervision
  5. Recognition
  6. Evaluation

managing different Types of volunteers

Managing people effectively requires an understanding of their needs and motivations. Different generations have different issues and preferences, such as:

Want their experience to be respected, like to share what they have learned.
Might be sensitive about age difference (especially when their supervisor is younger).

Baby Boomers:
Dislike authority.
Want to take charge.
Could be very good volunteer leader.

Generation X:
Want to be acknowledged for their expertise.

Generation Y and Millennials:
Use their connectedness as an opportunity (social media).
Might be more short-term focused.

The incentive for volunteering is very personal, which is why it is important for an organization to have a clearly defined vision and communicate it to the public. Bringing your volunteers back to that vision is a good way to unify them, and creating peer groups across various generations and background can also work.

Setting clear guidelines on how to communicate with each others is helpful, and it’s even better if those communication guides are written out. Big Cat Rescue has an excellent example for this.

Different types of volunteers create different management issues. For example, a full-time intern needs to be treated similar to a staff member, including a job description and regular reviews. Long term volunteers want to see opportunities to grow (horizontally or vertically) and ongoing incentives should be built into the program.

For short-term volunteers (for example at an annual event), the to do list needs to be clearly defined, an orientation should be held, and the value and mission of the event should be communicated. In addition, it’s good practice to acknowledge your volunteers in public. They might even become long term volunteers, if they have a great experience at the event.

Planning for the effective use of volunteers

Recruiting, managing and maintaining your volunteers effectively requires a well-thought out program. There are a few things to consider for each step:

Developing a volunteer program:

  • Ask staff members about their goals and needs.
  • Make sure that your organization has the infrastructure, space, budget and time to utilize volunteers.
  • Think about who will be in charge of the volunteer program. Do you have a dedicated staff member? Can you train volunteers to become leads?
  • What is your plan for volunteer orientation? What is the frequency? How are you going to follow up after the orientation?
  • How are you going to keep track of the volunteer hours? Where and for how long are you going to keep records?
  • What tools are you going to use? Salesforce (free for non-profits) or Volgistics are good solutions.

Planning and program design:

  • Is there a job description for your volunteers? Ideally, this should include your organization’s mission, specific tasks and time commitment.
  • Do you need to create a more detailed volunteer manual?
  • Who is going to supervise the volunteers? Will they need supervision?
  • Do you have a budget? Keep track of aggregated volunteer hours and look at them as saved expenses.


  • Get regular feedback from your volunteers to make sure that the program designs fits the job description.
  • Decide on the type and frequency of supervision.
  • Create metrics and goals to measure the success of your volunteer program. Some metrics to consider are number of volunteers, time commitment, continued service and consistency.
  • Create a recognition and rewards system.


  • What is the method of evaluation for volunteers, and how is it related to staff evaluations
  • Depending on the type of your organization, a customer satisfaction survey could be a way to evaluate your volunteer program.

Feedback and best practices (panel)

In addition to the material presented by the teacher, Bruce, we received valuable insight from the panel discussion at the end of the class. The panel consisted of three professionals who had worked in non-profit organizations for several years.

Best Practices:

  • Build relationships! Communicate with respect and don’t project your stress onto the volunteers.
  • Create clear guidelines and training for your volunteers to make them feel useful and empowered.
  • Make yourself available for annual checkups.
  • Share goals that need to be accomplished in a set timeframe.
  • Try to be a leader, not a manager. Leadership skills come from within, and a natural leader has the ability to make people feel important.
  • Identify leaders from your volunteer group, they tend to emerge naturally.

Working across different generations:

  • Create clear expectations from the beginning (example: no cell phones during volunteering).
  • Recognize people’s needs and limitations.
  • Intentionally create a diverse team.
  • Provide opportunities for team-building activities to break through “cliqueness”.
  • Leverage knowledge of older people and ask from their help.
  • include your volunteers in shaping the program, ask for their feedback through survey, personal outreach or open dialogue.

As a volunteer with a different organizations in the animal welfare and rescue field, I’d like to call out a few excellent best practices that I have experienced over the years.

Cat Town Oakland has created a community of volunteers, with their own Facebook page, where people post photos of the cats, give each other props for good work, or seek advice.

When I was a volunteer at Berkeley Humane (2007 to 2010), we had a binder for each cat. Whenever a volunteer spent time with a cat, they would write a short note to describe the visit. Reading through those notes was helpful for other volunteers, and once a cat got adopted, the binder was given to the new parents.

Big Cat Rescue has a great and very well defined training program for keeper volunteers: Every volunteer starts as a trainee, takes various classes and gets signed off on each step. Once you are signed off, you become a more senior keeper and can train others.

All organizations acknowledge outstanding volunteers (based on volunteer hours or peer recognition) and hold regular volunteer appreciation events.

What are the things you like about your volunteering experience?
Please share in the comments area below. Thank you :-)

Featured Photographer for Big Cat Rescue

Some of the photos I took during my six months with Big Cat Rescue in Florida were featured on their Facebook page. This is very exciting and it gave me exposure to a large number of people.

I also love this comment from media producer, T.O. Lawrence:

Wish her luck on her journeys and keep an eye out for her doing big things someday in the photo world.

Here are a few screenshots:

Big Cat Rescue

I can't express how happy I am to be a volunteer at Big Cat Rescue. Not only do I get to contribute to an amazing organization every day, I am also educating people around the private ownership of big cats, which hopefully will lead to changing the law in the US.

Taking photos of those amazing creatures on my days off is a huge reward for hard physical labor. Some of my photos have been featured on the official Big Cat Rescue Facebook page, which means that thousands of people see and like my work! 

Wildlife photography - a presentation by Jon Cornforth

Last week, I went to a very inspiring presentation by the award-winning wilderness photographer Jon Cornforth. The colors and composition in his pictures are perfect, and he always captures wildlife in their natural environment. What I found most inspiring was the love, respect and admiration he showed when he talked about the animals. But he also made it very clear that, to take "that perfect shot" of a whale or a polar bear, you will need an extraordinary amount of patience. He would often spend day after day in the rain or cold without seeing any animals. The weather and time of day are also an important element and, to take great photos, you may have to get up before sunrise.

One of his "favorite places in the world" is Hanalei Beach in Kauai, where Michael and I spent a week in 2013. Of course, now I want to go back, explore the landscape further and take photos.

Another place I really want to go back to is Alaska. I went on a trip in 2005, before I had a digital camera, and was blown away by the beauty of nature.

Jon offers tours with a focus on certain animals (polar bears, whales, bald eagles) or the aurora borealis, and a tour like this may just have to be a birthday present for myself at some point :-)