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The Effective Use of Volunteers

The Effective Use of Volunteers

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Published by: InactiveAccount on Jun 29, 2008
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06/14/2009

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The effective use of volunteers: best practices for the public sector.
 by Jeffrey L. BrudneyJEFFREY L. BRUDNEY [*]IINTRODUCTIONSeveral myths surround the involvement of volunteers in public and nonprofitorganizations in the delivery of services. [1] Perhaps the most common are thatvolunteers are "free" or impose no monetary costs on the host organization, and that theycan "save" agencies teetering on the edge of financial ruin. [2] Nearly as common is theassertion that volunteers cannot be "fired" or, in more extreme form, cannot be managed.[3] Other myths include beliefs that volunteers will perform any job task, and that theyare readily available to all organizations that want them. [4] Volunteer programs have thelamentable drawback, however, that they engender adversarial relationships with paidstaff. [5]Like most myths, those pertaining to volunteer involvement contain a grain of truth.Programs that have not been designed carefully are likely to fall prey to the identifiedmaladies and worse. [6] Alternatively, in programs that have been structured carefully,volunteer participation can help agencies realize the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of using volunteers. The most successful programs implement mechanisms and proceduresto administer the volunteer effort and manage its novel human resources effectively. [7]Although for the most part the academic literature has not considered the issue of best practices in volunteer program design and administration, [8] much of the practitioner literature describes in detail the characteristics of a thriving volunteer program. Based ona large sample survey of volunteer programs in public agencies, this article attempts to provide tentative evidence of the frequency of these best practices in public agencies. Thearticle posits a relationship between best practices and the benefits realized fromvolunteer involvement. In considering this analysis, the reader should be aware of twofactors. First, because validated measures of volunteer performance do not exist, themeasures of benefits used here emanate from the perceptions of the program directors.Second, because the parameters of the population of volunteer programs in governmentare unknown, the sample of programs analyzed here cannot be said to be representative.[9] Nevertheless, the sample is large and heterogeneous, an d previous research has notsystematically examined the efficacy of the purported best practices, despite the manifestneed to do so.The next two sections of the article present the necessary background. Part II definesgovernment-based volunteer programs to delimit the empirical analysis, and Part IIIexamines the extent and scope of volunteer involvement in the public sector. Part IVdiscusses the elements that contribute to best practices with volunteer workers. Thearticle then considers in Part V the data collected from the sample of government-basedvolunteer programs and the methods used in their analysis, and presents and interprets theempirical findings in Part VI. The article concludes with a summary and discussion of theimplications of the research.IIDEFINING VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS IN THE PUBLIC SECTOR 
 
The definition of "volunteer" and related concepts such as volunteerism, or voluntarism,is controversial. In an early treatment of the concept, David Horton Smith noted that"[v]oluntarism represents a category of human activity that is so varied it defies adequatedescription.... Yet we can only hope to deal rationally with this great variety of activitiesif we can devise some shorthand ways of referring to major sub-types of volunteers andvoluntarism." [10] Some twenty years later, reviewing the voluminous literature in thefield--more than 300 articles and reports--Ram A. Cnaan and colleagues uncovered agreat many interpretations of the volunteer concept, constituent dimensions, andmeasurement methods and indicators. [11] They concluded that, "[a]lthough mostscholars agree on the importance of volunteerism, there is little consensus as to what is,and is not, volunteerism. Therefore, it is important that the boundaries of volunteerism beexplicitly and clearly defined." [12] For present purposes, a definition of government- based volunteer programs is needed to elucidate the areas in which volunteers assistgovernment agencies, the magnitude of this effort, and the managerial and programelements involved in volunteer administration and attendant best practices.In their analysis of the extensive research on volunteering, Cnaan et al. conclude that four  principal dimensions underlie the definition of the volunteer concept. [13] The first is"free choice," or the degree to which the decision to volunteer is free or uncoerced."Popular conceptions of the term "volunteer" notwithstanding, pressure to donate time ishardly unknown in the volunteer world. For example, schools in California apparently pressure parents to volunteer on campus as well as to make monetary donations. [15] Inaddition, an increasing number of elementary and secondary school systems requirecommunity-service experiences for graduation, and most encourage their students toundertake service activities. [16] The decision to volunteer also may be obviated, for example, by a court order mandating service as part of a legal sentence often called"community service."The second dimension is the nature of remuneration, if any, received by the volunteer.[17] Remuneration can range from none at all, to reimbursement for expenses incurred inthe activity, [18] to a stipend or minimal pay given to participants, as in the AmeriCorps program. [19] At the other end of the spectrum and rarely considered in definitions of theconcept, the volunteer might be required to pay for the privilege in certain instances. For example, the volunteer might be required to make a financial contribution to a prestigiousnonprofit organization, such as a renowned cultural institution, in return for a seat on its board of directors. It would be a rare nonprofit organization that did not expect membersof its voluntary board of directors to make a monetary contribution.Third is the context or auspices under which the volunteer activity takes place. [20]Volunteering may be informal and outside of an organization (for example, helping aneighbor or friend). Alternatively, volunteering may occur in a formal, organized setting,which is almost always a nonprofit organization or government agency. [21] Volunteeringto profit-making firms does occur, but its legal status is debatable. For example, a NewYork Times article reported that America Online had used volunteers for a decade to helpmaintain its online services--by answering questions from subscribers, supervising chatrooms, and enforcing rules--and that some former volunteers had challenged the practiceunder the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"). [22]In their analysis of definitions of volunteering, the final dimension identified by Cnaan etal. is the intended beneficiaries of the activity. [23] The aim of volunteers may be to
 
 benefit or help strangers, friends, relatives, themselves, or some combination of these beneficiaries. [24]These dimensions for classifying volunteer activity illustrate the great breadth of theconcept and the need to delineate the nature of volunteering under consideration [25]Each combination of dimensions yields a distinct conception of volunteering withimportant implications for volunteer-program design and management. Rather thansummarily combine all forms of volunteering as if they were identical or nearly so,Cnaan and Laura Amrofell maintain that "only the combination of all facets forms avolunteer profile that is distinctive enough to warrant generalizations." [26]In this article, the focus is on volunteer programs in the public sector. Volunteering to the public sector has the following characteristics:(1) The volunteer activity is sponsored and housed under the auspices of a governmentagency.(2) As implied by this definition, the volunteer activity takes place in a formal setting,that is, in an organizational context.(3) The volunteers do not receive remuneration for their donations of time and labor.Based on their study of the AmeriCorps program, Debra Mesch et al. maintain that they"see the stipended volunteer as conceptually and behaviorally different from theuncompensated volunteer." [27] This article follows their approach.(4) Volunteers in the public sector are entitled to reimbursement for the out-of-pocketexpenses incurred in this activity, such as mileage, meals, and parking. Althoughstipended volunteers are excluded from the definition, one should not have to "pay" for the privilege of volunteering. The FLSA provides that individuals do not lose their statusas volunteers merely because they receive reimbursement. [28] The degree to whichgovernment agencies honor this principle is an empirical matter, to be examined below.(5) The volunteer's time should be given freely, rather than mandated or coerced.Compulsion significantly alters the nature of volunteering. [29] Regulations issued under the FLSA by the U.S. Department of Labor state that volunteer services should be offeredfreely and without pressure or coercion. [30](6) The volunteer activity is intended to benefit the clients of government agencies,although participants may certainly reap nonmaterial benefits as well (for example, psychic and social benefits), and almost surely do.(7) Government-based volunteer programs place citizens in positions with ongoingresponsibilities for service-delivery (for example, client contact) or organizationalmaintenance (for example, assisting paid staff). "There are no limitations or restrictionimposed by the FLSA on the types of services which private individuals may volunteer to perform for public agencies." [31]Based on this definition, the inquiry turns to the extent and scope of volunteering togovernment organizations and the management of these programs.IIITHE EXTENT AND SCOPE OF VOLUNTEERING TO THE PUBLIC SECTOR Several surveys and other data offer useful insights into the extent of volunteering in the public sector in the United States and the substantive foci of this activity. These studiesestablish that although the great majority of volunteers donate their time to the nonprofitsector, a significant amount of volunteering is devoted to goverment organizations.

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