By Lori Carlson
A couple of years ago, PLF had more volunteer inquiries than we could manage. The selection process was always tricky; how could we know via a few emails who was going to be the most effective volunteer? Sometimes we got lucky, sometimes we didn’t; our choosing process seemed so random and ineffective.
Managing loads of volunteers on the ground, keeping them properly supported, at times was a drain on the organization with a significant amount of human resource being expended, and we doubted seriously if our donors would like the idea of us spending thousands of dollars of their funds every year supporting foreigners in the field. We sometimes felt like we were turning into one of those organizations that was more into “creating experiences for foreigners” and not keeping 100% focus on our programs.
We felt quite stuck and needed to find some criteria on which to hang the decision of who to accept. We also needed to downsize the program just a bit to get it more manageable.
We noticed a correlation between volunteers who had done some fund-raising prior to their volunteering mission and the way they performed on the ground; we found they came to us already understanding what the needs are, already knowing a lot about our organization and having some sense of ownership around what we are doing. People don’t post up a donation page without already feeling like they are on the team. Without exception we observed that those people were everything we’d want in a volunteer and more. Those people were beyond “volunteer” they were “advocates”.
We wished to have a higher concentration of these high impact volunteers and reduce overhead for the organization.
We decided to use “willingness to attempt to raise funds” (with no financial goal that had to be met) as a separation tool, as a way to attract more of these über volunteers . So we made some bold steps and took a sharp right turn with what we required of people coming over to work with PLF.
Volunteer applications dropped dramatically. And that was part of what we wanted; to decrease the overhead of running volunteers while maintaining full impact. Those who had participated in the new advocacy program were arriving in Siem Reap more fully vested and we found them across the board to be very helpful to our project. They had done their research, they were prepared, they made a meaningful contribution while they were here and became strong advocates for the organization when they went home. We thought we were so clever!
Then something interesting happened. The number of volunteer applications just kept dropping until we are currently at the point where not nearly enough people are signing up.
OK, maybe we’re not so clever after all!
I don’t know exactly why it didn’t plummet but then just plateau. Maybe something to do with not reaching some critical mass—not enough word-of-mouth; not enough people blogging about us, talking about us, sharing their photos on their Facebook page; we may never know all the big and small things that made it go from “a reasonable number of deeply committed volunteers” to “none”.
The point is, this move by us was an error we could not have predicted and we’re not afraid to say so. We swung the pendulum way too far. There is a middle ground somewhere and we are struggling to find it, but find it we will.
We need our volunteers! They inject new ideas, fresh energy, they help keep us and our students & teachers enthused, they have great ideas for pilot projects and help us get teachers on board. And yes, they sometimes do become strong advocates for the cause of our students; raising funds, raising awareness, talking about us on the inter webs; we need all that too.
So, we’re dialing back the clock to that time when we had too many volunteers, and we are busy retooling the requirements, to return it to the way it was two years ago when it was working and we’ll see what happens. Have a look at the new requirements.
Hopefully, we will be faced with a similar flood of applicants and can find another way to manage that problem.
We are grateful for the way our supporters do just that; support us, through thick and thin. Even when we make critical miscalculations.
We know you’ll stick with us now, as we try and sort this problem out.
We need to see the volunteering program through your eyes.
Will you consider helping us by doing one of these three things?
Don’t hold back!
We appreciate greatly the perspective only you can give us.