POSTED ON JANUARY 9, 2013:
Volunteers 'R' Us
Group ponders doing background checks for other nonprofits
It's not always about saying nice things when looking out for the best interests of both volunteers and not-for-profits.
Sometimes Brenda Michael-Haggard, executive director of Volunteer Tulsa, has to let organizations know when a volunteer has had a lousy experience.
"It can happen often," Michael-Haggard said. An overwhelmed volunteer administrator may be juggling too many tasks to properly describe the volunteer position, for example, leading to miscommunication from the start, she said. Other times, people may not have kept track of who is coming on what days to ensure everybody knows their role.
"How a volunteer is treated, communicated with, is huge, huge to whether or not a volunteer fulfills any part of that desire to serve," Michael-Haggard said.
If the volunteer signed on through Volunteer Tulsa, sort of a central hub between volunteers and community charities, feedback can be given online.
"We can help the organization [and] the volunteer administrator know so that someone else can have a better experience next time," Michael-Haggard said.
Volunteer Tulsa, formed in 2005 after spinning off from the Community Service Council, works to match up volunteers with giving opportunities. But its mission also involves encouraging and consulting with not-for-profits to help them best reach their goals.
On the agenda for the new year is an idea to serve as more of a central clearinghouse for volunteers, not only doing background checks for other organizations but also offering basic orientation on being a volunteer.
No decision has yet been made about whether Volunteer Tulsa will take on this expanded role, but Michael-Haggard said the idea has some support. She said she spoke to a gathering of United Way organizations to ask how much interest the representatives had in participating in such a program. "All the hands went up," Michael-Haggard said.
"Our mission program committee is researching the possibility of our becoming that certifying organization," she said, explaining that to help other nonprofits, "the intention is to help reduce their expense, because that could maximize resources."
Background checks can be pricey, though Michael-Haggard praised Tulsa-based American Checked, a background screening company, for offering "greatly reduced rates" to the organization, as well as free consultations for many charities.
If Volunteer Tulsa moves forward with the idea, it must consider the cost and liability of acting as such a clearinghouse. The benefit would be to other nonprofits, which "our card-carrying volunteers could plug right into" those groups' efforts more quickly and easily, she said.
Michael-Haggard also touts the benefits of a disciplined approach to volunteer management, encouraging others to complete what's known as the Certified in Volunteer Administration process.
Volunteer Tulsa published a report in 2011 that included survey results showing that 68 percent of responding organizations have staff specifically recognized or trained in managing volunteers.
"At the core, at the structural system, Volunteer Tulsa observes the most effective organizations are the ones that have clearly, boldly embraced volunteerism as key, critical and central to their organization's being," she said.
But there's no guarantee that nonprofits recognize what Michael-Haggard described as the importance of such management. Also, change can come rapidly for these organizations. "I believe 35 percent of our organizations just in the past year, year and a half have had a transition in volunteer administration," Michael-Haggard said, calling it a high level of turnover.
At Oklahoma Blood Institute, Stephanie Huston works as director of volunteer services. In Tulsa, about 65 volunteers perform a variety of roles that include labeling empty blood bags to helping donors sign in at various blood donations events.
The Oklahoma City-based organization actually operates in Arkansas and Texas, and, in total, has over 1,000 volunteers performing an even wider variety of tasks, Huston said.
"Without the volunteers, there's a lot of work that either, a.) would go undone, or b.) we would have to put on the plates of others. I think the volunteers kind of help us hold it all together," Huston said.
She's completed the coursework and passed the exam to be Certified in Volunteer Administration, but had not yet heard about results from her complete portfolio as of press time.
Asked why she worked to complete the certification, she said, "I thought this would be a good way not only to validate what I do every day, but kind of increase my knowledge of volunteerism as a whole."
She stressed the importance of interviews to find out if a volunteer is a good match for the institute.
"We do have volunteer opportunities that don't take a lot of training, but we do have volunteer opportunities that do take some training in order that there's not any errors," Huston said. She explained about the cost of new blood bags and the importance of proper labeling, for example. "Sometimes my challenge is just communicating with the volunteer what our needs are, gathering information on what their needs are to see if we're a good fit."
At Volunteertulsa.org, more than 22,000 have signed up to explore what volunteer opportunities are available locally. The website has been tweaked this year to allow for volunteers to report their activity as a way to keep better track of exactly how much volunteer work is done in the Tulsa area.
"That will give us a greater indication of what is going on in the community," Michael-Haggard said, encouraging new organizations to also input information into the website.
The organization is not content to simply be an online tool, however, and it remains committed to improving efficiency and satisfaction related to volunteer work.
"With anything, the negative volunteer experiences, just like a negative restaurant experience or negative customer service in a retail store, can be deadly. And we are here to learn and help our organizations avoid the negative experiences so that the volunteers they rely upon to fulfill their missions are available and clamoring to come and help," she said.
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