May 08, 2008

Volunteers are people too (2)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have recently joined a free adult literacy programme as a volunteer tutor. This week I attended the first of 4 days of training, and once again I was struck by the different methods large organisations use in trying attract and retain volunteers.

I have considerable experience with such organisations, having been active in Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades for over 10 years, and in the ODP (DMOZ) for the the last 4 years or so (see previous post). The same challenges seem to affect them all:
  • wanting to recruit more volunteers, while screening out those who are unsuitable or even dangerous
  • providing sufficient training to make these volunteers effective and reliable, without making them feel it is all "too hard"
  • maintaining the necessary standards without discouraging those who are enthusiastic but under-skilled
  • finding appropriate positions which make the most of individual talents
  • trying to avoid the internal politics and cliques which can quickly alienate members
  • and (my personal soapbox) maintaining interest and motivation.
I was intrigued to find that the literacy organisation is very similar in overall structure to the ODP, with only a couple of paid staff members and the rest all volunteers, including the "regional co-ordinators", who are responsible for recruitment, quality control and ongoing support within a specific area. 
Not dissimilar to the roles of ODP meta-editors and editalls, I feel. 

Numerically, it is smaller than DMOZ, to be sure, with only about 1000 volunteers across the state, but these are all active on a weekly basis (holidays and emergencies permitting, of course), which is a sad contrast to the steadily declining levels of ODP participation that I have observed over the last 2 years.

I think one reason for the ongoing success of Read Write Now! is that as well as the initial interview and training course, the level of ongoing support is very high indeed, with the volunteer co-ordinators regularly contacting the tutors in their region, providing resources, offering assistance, resolving difficulties, and generally providing encouragement and the benefit of their experience.  This system has worked so well over the last 30 years that the organisation is the largest and most active adult literacy group in the country, and has been used as a model by those in other states. 

I'm sure that like all organisations it has had its share of problems, internal conflicts, and disaffected members. But overall they seem to be doing things right, and their respect and support for volunteers seems to be a crucial factor in their ongoing success.

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