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5 Tips to Make Volunteer Management Easier

One of the great things about working at SwimTopia is being able to work with and learn from swim teams from all across the country. After working with hundreds of teams of all shapes and sizes, we’ve noticed that some teams really struggle with volunteering while others seems to have parents who are eager to help. We’ve taken these tips on how to make volunteer management easier from our most successful teams.

From those interactions, we have observed and identified the five practices below which are commonly exhibited by teams with a healthy culture of volunteerism. It should be no surprise that coaches and board members who feel supported by their parents and teams are happier and able to be more effective.

Make Volunteer Management Easier:
1. Expect Parents to Be Helpful

Perhaps the single clearest pattern we see is that the teams that put a major focus on enforcement of minimum volunteering requirements also tend to be the ones who struggle the most with volunteering.

We’re not saying that there is no place for volunteering quotas and penalties, but those should not be the only tools in your team’s volunteer management toolbox. It is critical to provide opportunities for parents step up because they want to help, rather than because they are required to do so.

In a perfect world, all teams would have an abundance of parents eager to donate their time and expertise to help create a fun, rewarding experience for their kids and their communities.

But the reality is every team has some parents willing to help and others who want to get away with doing as little as possible. The goal is to create an environment where helpful parents are the norm, and free-loading families are the rare exception. So then focus needs to be put on creating an environment that lets those helpful parents be helpful.

To be sure, creating a culture of volunteerism takes time and effort. The first step is setting the expectation that most parents will help if given the opportunity and proper support. They will never meet (or exceed!) your expectations if they are never given a chance.

Does your team assume parents will be willing help if given the opportunity and proper support?

2. Pay Your Volunteers with Praise and Recognition

Make volunteer management easier by putting thought into making sure the efforts of your volunteers are recognized. Just because every family on the team should be volunteering in some capacity, doesn’t make the hundreds of hours parents collectively donate to the team any less remarkable or worthy of thanks.

The end-of-season banquet is great opportunity to thank and commend all the parents who willingly gave their time and energy toward making the swim team experience better for everyone. A heartfelt thank you really goes a long way.

Giving out special volunteer awards are a very effective way to recognize those individuals who have gone above and beyond. Many teams also give special recognition to those parents/families who have been donating their time for a decade or more. This public display of appreciation makes volunteers feel good about the time and effort they have contributed, but it also sets an example for the new families about the level of participation and commitment that is expected and rewarded by the team.

Parents are willing to give their time because they love their kids and want to give them a great experience. So it is ironic that in many cases the kids have little idea or appreciation for how much time their parents put into making their swim team fun.

Some teams have success in increasing this awareness and encouraging volunteerism at the same time by giving the kids a sticker or similar prize each time their parents volunteer for the team. This has the great dual benefit of making the kids aware of the work their parents are doing, and giving parents a strong incentive to do their fair share to avoid disappointing their own kids.

What more could your team do to recognize your volunteers?

3. Share the Workload

Teams that have an easier time with volunteering also tend to do a good job of sharing the volunteering duties across a larger group.

If your team has a handful of people carrying most of the load, it is important to realize that while the heroic efforts of those volunteers is commendable, in the long run it is not a sustainable or healthy way to run your organization.

Relying on heroes to do most of the work fosters the idea that most parents don’t have to do much, and once they see how much work the core volunteers do, they are reluctant to offer to help more, out of fear of becoming one of those overworked core volunteers.

One strategy to ease recruitment of volunteers is to break a big, hard-to-fill positions into several smaller positions. One way to do this is by creating “apprentice” positions in support of the head roles. These apprentice positions are a great way to attract volunteers who would be reluctant to accept a position with more responsibility, while spreading the responsibilities around, and grooming future leaders to fill those key positions down the road.

Could your team benefit from distributing volunteer duties across are larger pool of volunteers? Do your key volunteers have apprentices?

4. Have Well Defined Jobs and Clear Communications

When my kids first joined the neighborhood summer league swim team years ago, I remember being amazed at just how many jobs had to be filled to run a swim meet. More amazing still was that these jobs were being filled, in many cases, by people who had never previously done the job before. They were being recruited and trained on the spot. Yet, despite the overwhelming number and variety of positions and the inexperience of the workers, our swim meets ran smoothly week after week.

I was struck by the observation that swim teams were able to operate effectively, despite their scale and complexity, because of two things: (1) team duties are broken down into many simple, well-defined positions such as timer or runner, which require very little training and (2) a clear chain of command such that everyone knows who is in charge of each area and who to talk to if they need help dealing with an unexpected situation.

Providing a clearly defined organizational structure not only helps your meets run more smoothly but also gives your volunteers more confidence that their time is being used efficiently.

Are your team’s jobs well defined? Is the chain-of-command clear and understood?

5. Document Your Positions and Processes

The last habit we see exhibited by effective volunteer-driven organizations is the discipline to document their processes and record the lessons they’ve learned.

Too often we see teams struggling in part because their team doesn’t have a good institutional memory. As a result, knowledge about how to run the swim team is passed along via an oral tradition, and the same mistakes are made over and over, and good solutions are forgotten or are recreated again and again.

Highly effective teams often have good documentation for every position and duty on the team. To remain innovative and flexible, teams will often take some time at the end of each season to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and to update their documents with that new learning.

If your team doesn’t have good documentation for your positions, a great way to kickstart the process is to create volunteer role for a “Secretary” or “Team Historian” to collect and document how your team does what it does. In many cases, just the act of documenting your processes will reveal ways they can be easily improved.

Documenting and disseminating best practices is also an area where the League organization can provide leadership and value to all the teams in the league. By defining the key jobs and roles and sharing best practices, the League can help all its teams to be more efficient and effective.

Does your team have well-documented processes? Do you have a process for regularly reviewing and updating your documentation?

Try using these tips to make volunteer management easier and let us know how it goes!