It’s always delicate working with volunteers.
You can feel guilty asking them to do things — it’s their free time, after all. But if volunteers aren’t engaged enough, they can feel they’re not making a difference, and will just quit showing up.
But no matter who you are, there’s a good chance you’ll need a volunteer (or ten) to take you to the next level.
So how do you do it?
Zeze Rwasama (more on him here) has worked with every type of volunteer you can imagine, from neighbors to church congregations to community organizations.
So, we asked him what his tips are for working with volunteers and setting them up for success.
- Zeze Rwasama -
Another way of saying this: Give your volunteers context for the big vision of your org.
You might think this is obvious — why are volunteers there, if they don’t know or like what you’re doing?
And, you’re probably right. But just knowing or approving of what you do is hardly ever enough to keep volunteers in sync with those who have been with you a long time.
Zeze has found that volunteers need to know the why and how, as well as the what. One of the primary goals of Zeze’s team is working towards creating self-sufficiency in the refugee population. He’s found that everyone who offers to volunteer (whether time or money) needs to go through an orientation with him and his team. That’s so the volunteer knows the goals of Zeze’s organization and the long-term results they strive for with each refugee.
This also helps Zeze and his team address concerns early on in the volunteer process so people know — and buy in to — what their time and money is going to do. He’ll sometimes even turn people away who want to give money or resources to finance part of a refugee’s life but haven’t gone through volunteer orientation. In his extensive experience, everyone needs to know how their money and resources will be used so they can see the impact they are making.
While Zeze’s team needs (and appreciates) money, they are careful to prioritize volunteers who are able to give time, because that is what aligns with his goals and makes an arguably larger difference to the refugee center’s clients.
There are a couple dynamics that can arise when volunteers work with a vulnerable population that org leaders need to watch out for.
First, the needs of a vulnerable population such as refugees can be overwhelming to some volunteers — and second, given the situation, there’s a potential that a negative power dynamic can arise between volunteers and refugees.
To avoid these — as well as mistakes, miscommunications, and bad advice that could (in Zeze’s case) derail a refugee’s attempt at resettlement — it’s crucial to create safe, dedicated spaces for both groups to communicate directly with leaders.
When a refugee arrives to the refugee center, Zeze makes sure his core team introduces the volunteer and the refugee and go over the expectations for both, so the relationship between the volunteer and the refugee won’t overwhelm either one. In addition, both parties will know who on Zeze’s ream to reach out to if there are issues, so the relationship stays healthy.
Although some may see volunteers as “free labor”, it’s important to remember that they are not.
A volunteer’s time can be seen as a mutual investment of both the volunteer and the organization.
They are giving their time, which is extremely valuable — and deserves to be treated as such. And your org — definitely Zeze’s — need to vet and train the volunteers.
The best way to honor that investment from the organization and sacrifice of the volunteer is to allow them to thrive in roles that utilize and value their individual strengths.
Everyone is an expert or subject matter expert at some particular thing —and people thrive when they know their strengths are being utilized and valued.
As Zeze says, when it comes to training: “No matter how specific you get…..always always always always leave room for questions.”
He adds, “If people don’t have any questions, it's better to check in later with them than to assume you ran a flawless training. Your volunteers want to be part of something great — so help them continue to grow.”
Email him at: zrwasama[at]refugeecenter[dot]csi[dot]edu.
Volunteers / Leadership / Refugees / Culture Shock / Self-sufficiency / Trauma-informed Clients / Inclusivity / Resource Allocation / Charitable Causes / Government Funding / Community / Making a Difference / Vision / African Heritage / Culture / Refugee Integration / Vulnerable Populations / Change