Re-Designing Volunteer Jobs That Are “Too Big”

Does your organization have volunteer jobs that seem overwhelming or “too big” and are causing volunteer fatigue?

Rather than searching for a “super volunteer” to take on these big jobs, Tobi Johnson suggests you re-design these roles, and offers some helpful tips and steps you can to take.

This article by Tobi Johnson (Tobi Johnson & Associates) was originally published on Tobi’s Volunteer Management Blog.

While it would be great if all volunteers were natural born leaders, had tons of time to give, and were willing to take on even the toughest tasks, it isn't always the case.

Although volunteers are a valuable resource, they do not generally have unlimited energy or capacity. And yet, the work of our organizations seems to get more and more difficult.  So, what can we do?

If volunteers complain that a job is too overwhelming, it's likely because it's not the right fit or because the job really is too big.

When volunteers balk at taking on a big job, one option may be to wait around for the right "super volunteer" to come along, or to mount a focused campaign to find Mr. or Ms. Right. Another is to re-design your volunteer jobs so that they feel more like a reasonable request.

The act of re-designing roles converts what was thought of as a people problem into a process problem.

Get Volunteers Involved 

If you decide to re-design volunteer roles, consider inviting a group of volunteers to participate in the process. Include volunteers for three reasons:

  1. Volunteers, especially those who have dedicated many hours of service, may resist changes to the comfortable work roles and processes they have developed over the years.  They will be more amenable to change if they are actually involved in the process of making it happen and have a say in what will ultimately affect them in a very direct way.
  2. Current volunteers are subject matter experts in their tasks and their challenges. They have likely already thought of ways to improve things and will also be able to provide practical pros and cons to new any new proposals.
  3. It's going to take some time and effort to complete the re-design, and volunteers are a wonderful asset to tap for this purpose.

Re-design Your Volunteer Positions in 6 Steps

  • Step 1 Identify all of the main areas of work (administrative, direct service, communications, management, etc.). Include everything your program takes on.

  • Step 2 Brainstorm all of the tasks that need to be completed within each work area. Be sure to complete a thorough inventory and break down large tasks into smaller, discreet chunks. You may begin to see complimentary tasks that could be integrated into a single work process.

  • Step 3 Assess the frequency and timing of each task (i.e., twice a day, every Monday from 3-6pm, by the first of the month, etc.). This step is important in determining which tasks can be accomplished by volunteers and which by paid staff. This may also help unearth ways to create more efficient workflow by assigning tasks that are to be completed at around the same time to the same position.

  • Step 4 Rate the complexity of each task (low, medium, high). This is important in determining the minimum qualifications, training and support needed for each role. Also, tasks with similar complexities might be combined under one role, so that the most effective use can be made of volunteer talent at each level.

  • Step 5 Design new roles and check to be sure each contains the three elements of job satisfaction:
    • Task Variety – taps the breadth of skills and talents of the volunteer
    • Task Identity – allows the volunteer to complete some tasks from beginning to end
    • Task Significance– the volunteer believes the job has a substantial impact on
      others and the organization’s mission

  • Step 6 Create volunteer position descriptions for each role that reflect the desired qualifications, minimum time commitment, training and support provided, and how the position relates to the overall mission of the organization and the goals of the program.

Other Ways to Prevent Volunteer Fatigue

Instead of re-designing your volunteer positions, there are other ways to help keep tasks from overwhelming volunteers and, at the same time, prevent burn out:

  • Reduce Effort Through Technology and Automation– For example, instead of answering a statewide toll free number at the central reception desk and then forwarding it to the appropriate local program, have the toll free number automatically forward calls based on call origination. Or, instead of hand mailing volunteer application packets, make digital copies available on your website.
  • Reduce Mental Demands by Providing Job Aids and Ready Resources– Develop simple graphic tip sheets that outline key contacts, common, work processes, etc. for easy reference. Post everything online, so critical information can be found at any time from any locale.
  • Try Triage or a Team Approach to Share the Load– For example, assign one team member the intake portion of client service, while another provides the direct service, while another does the follow up. Or, share clients amongst a team that is assigned different days of the week. When using either of these tactics, it’s important to increase the team communication and keep everyone in the loop regarding client progress. That way, volunteers still feel they are an integral part of the larger solution.
  • Make it Clear When, Where and How to Ask for Help– Provide guidelines about how and when to make referrals, and to whom (both inside and outside the agency). Be very clear about the scope of the volunteer’s work and the importance of relying on the appropriate community resources to help a client. Also, be sure to offer back up to volunteers who are struggling with a task or are feeling overwhelmed. Let volunteers know that genuine support will be provided when they need it.
  • Reduce the Bureaucratic Burden– Figure out how to simplify the administrative hoops volunteers must jump through to get something done. For example, provide them templates, and give them the freedom to create outreach materials without approval each time (support them with training and clear guidelines).  If you can’t simplify the steps, at least shield volunteers from the humdrum.

About the author – Tobi Johnson (Tobi Johnson & Associates)

Nearly thirty years ago, Tobi Johnson took her first job in the nonprofit sector — an unpaid summer internship at the Seattle Arts Commission. Working for the public good captured her heart and launched her lifelong journey as a “serial social entrepreneur.” Since that summer, Tobi has been launched and renovated numerous programs in the arts, employment and training, social services, health benefits education, and community outreach and advocacy. Now, Tobi runs her own volunteer management consulting firm where she helps nonprofit organizations make connections with remarkable volunteers who share a common vision for a better world.

Image sourcePhoto-portrait of a happy and diverse volunteer group - courtesy of
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Re-Designing Volunteer Jobs That Are Too Big by Wild Apricot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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