Ever Heard that One About the Penguins? A Lesson on Managing a Volunteer Program from one of Assemble’s VISTAs

There’s a classic joke about working with volunteers, and it goes like this:

A man was delivering penguins to the zoo when his van broke down on the highway. A fellow stopped to see if he could be of assistance. “Oh, I’m in some real trouble here” said the first man. “I’ve got to take these penguins to the zoo today, and now I’m not sure I’ll get there.”

The helpful fellow volunteered to put the penguins in the back of his car and take them to the zoo. The man with car trouble gratefully accepted this offer and promised to get to the zoo as soon as possible. 

A little later, the man was on the road again and went immediately to the zoo. He looked everywhere but did not see the helpful fellow or any of the penguins. In a panic, he drove back into town. Just as he was wondering what in the world to do next, he saw the “volunteer” walking across the street with all the penguins waddling along behind him.

He ran up and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you were going to take the penguins to the zoo!”

The volunteer replied, “I did, and we had such a good time there, we decided to come into town for ice cream.”

(Posted on CyberVPM by Sandy Leonard. Source Unknown.)

If you have ever managed a volunteer program before, this anecdote may be all too familiar. Volunteers need clear directions (and often training as well) in order to effectively serve an organization.

I recently (re)learned this the hard way.  I am serving in Americorps VISTA through MakerEd, and my year-long assignment is to act as the Outreach and Volunteer Specialist at Assemble.  Among other duties, I coordinate volunteers for “Make and Takes,” which are community events where we bring fun, hands-on activities for kids. These events help expose the broader community to the idea of making and the programs Assemble offers. These events can have hundreds or even thousands of kids in attendance, and our volunteers allow us to reach more of them.

I recently discussed Make and Take volunteer opportunities with one of the leaders of a service organization at a local college. She was enthusiastic about working with Assemble, and we had an unusual cluster of four events over a period of three days, so she spread the word and asked members to sign up for volunteer shifts, which they did.

Then – not once but TWICE – the students appeared to be no-shows. As it turns out, both times they apparently showed up at the event, announced they were there to volunteer, and were immediately put to work. But there was a problem – they failed to mention that they were there to volunteer for Assemble. Therefore, the busy event organizers gave them volunteer tasks, such as walking around chaperoning a group of children, for the event itself. The students failed to come to Assemble’s table, resulting in a shortage of people facilitating the Make and Take; therefore, less kids were able to participate.

Partly as a result of these issues, we have implemented a new policy – no new volunteers can sign up for a shift until they have attended one of our Volunteer Orientations. If the above-mentioned student volunteers had understood what they signed up to do, they would have found the Assemble table when they arrived. I am now scheduling Volunteer Orientations every other month, during which new volunteers can tour Assemble and learn about our programs, eat pizza, and even do some of our Make and Take Activities themselves.

If you take a step back, this story also illustrates a second problem I have recruiting and managing volunteers. The reason the service organization contacted me in the first place is because they were seeking an activity for a large group of students to do together. I actually get contacted regularly by people asking me to set up one-time, group service opportunities for everything from tech companies to teens on probation. It seems people want to feel like they are doing good in their community (or satisfy a service requirement), but many don’t want to commit to more than a few hours on a Saturday.

With the exception of occasionally cleaning or organizing our physical space, Assemble simply does not need large groups of volunteers for a few hours. What we need are dedicated, consistent volunteers to help facilitate our programs and develop relationships with the youth who come to Assemble. Or, we need single volunteers with special skills (such as graphic design) for long or short-term projects (such as designing a new flyer). The question becomes, can we successfully engage people looking for a one- time experience and turn them into longer-term volunteers?

I think the answer is yes — if you remember that quality is more important than quantity. Despite the debacle described above, we now have eight (out of 300) of the service organization’s members signed up to attend the next Volunteer Orientation, and even if only four of them show up, and one of those four starts volunteering regularly, that will result in 150 additional students being exposed to making and to Assemble each year (assuming s/he volunteers at 6 Make and Takes (one every other month for a year) * an additional 25 kids served per event due to their presence = 150).

In other words, effectively engaging with these large groups — even if we cannot accommodate their initial request — will hopefully result in increased visibility and outreach to families, building Assemble’s capacity to promote making.

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