Supervising volunteers: Five basic principles

Supervising volunteers can be a very difficult job. With a hand full of resources, those who supervise volunteers can be successful. Learn the five basic principles that supervision of volunteers rests on.

If you’re a person who carries the job title “supervisor,” you already know it takes someone with a lot of great qualities to be successful. To be an effective supervisor means that you must communicate well, listen, be confident, motivate others, create an environment of shared responsibility, and much more. Supervising requires a lot of responsibility and can be a very difficult job.

What about narrowing that perspective? What about supervising a specific group of people, like volunteers? You still need all of those really great qualities that a general supervisor possesses, but it really takes a unique individual to be a supervisor of volunteers.

So how does someone who supervises volunteers learn how to do their job well? Energize Inc. has a webpage with a plethora of resources dedicated to volunteer supervision that includes articles and expert resources, additional websites, and free electronic books. One resource that can be highlighted discusses some basic rules or principles that a supervisor of volunteers can start with. As they are explained below, try to think about how or if these principles are currently used in your organization.

Jarene Frances Lee and Julia M. Catagnus explain in their book, What We Learned (the Hard Way) About Supervising Volunteers, that there are five basic principles that supervision of volunteers rests on. They include:

Principle 1: Volunteers are real staff

All the work of an organization is done by people: Some are paid wage and some are not.

Principle 2: Volunteers aren’t free

While organizations do not pay a salary to a volunteer, they do have to invest time and other resources to ensure that volunteers are effective.

Principle 3: Supervision is about forming and maintaining relationships

A supervisor must form and maintain relationships with all workers they supervise, including training, coaching or providing feedback. Those relationships can be characterized by mutual trust, respect and recognition of competency and professionalism.

Principle 4: The functions of a supervisor can be shared

All workers need supervisors, but it doesn’t need to all be done by one person. Volunteers may be supervised by paid staff or by other volunteers.

Principle 5: Supervision cannot be isolated from other aspects of volunteer program management

Supervision is distinct from, but related to, job design, screening, training, placement, evaluation and recognition, and can often overlap.

There are many resources available to help those who supervise volunteers to be successful. The Principles discussed above are from What We Learned (the Hard Way) About Supervising Volunteers, by Jarene Frances Lee and Julia M. Catagnus. Watch for future articles about supervising volunteers. For more on volunteering, visit the Michigan State University Extension volunteering page.

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