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Introduction to Supervision


The goal of supervising volunteers is to establish conditions that encourage and support others to get jobs done. Formerly, in the traditional supervisor/worker model, the supervisor alone made decisions and directed the work of those reporting to him/her. Today's effective supervisor encourages staff and volunteers to be increasingly involved in decisions that involve them and to take more responsibility for their actions.

When a staff member or lead volunteer is asked to supervise one or more volunteers, there is a need to clarify: (1) the role of supervisor, (2) the skills, qualities and tasks involved in supervision, (3) how supervising volunteers is similar and unique as compared to supervising staff, and (4) suggested procedures to carry out this function. Even experienced supervisors find the transition to supervision of volunteers challenging if the task and expectations are not clear. If the staff or volunteers have no experience with supervision, there clearly needs to be training provided. The role of supervisor encompasses many skills and techniques such as delegation, evaluation, training, etc.

Suggesting that an organization initiates performance reviews of volunteers is frequently met with tremendous resistance. You may hear, "We're getting too formal,” "Volunteers will be scared off,” "We don't have the time or skills to perform them,” or "How could we ever initiate this with our current volunteers?" Countering these reflections is a growing number of volunteer program leaders who see performance review as a reflection of the importance of volunteers in an organization. It is a mutual way to express appreciation, identify problems and needs, determine the volunteer's future involvement in the organization, and hold the volunteer and the organization accountable for their commitment to one another.

How to handle volunteer performance concerns is also a big topic for Volunteer Engagement Leaders. Supervisors of volunteers need to be comfortable confronting volunteers with concerns and working together to solve the problems. Issues need to be clearly shared and documented, and dates need to be set to review progress. When the organization is doing a better job of supporting a volunteer and the volunteer works to correct a performance problem, situations are often handled without the need to examine other options, such as re-assigning to a better suited position, re-training, or asking the volunteer to retire.
Occasionally, infractions of policy, violation of confidentiality, or dangerous activity occur. Then, it becomes necessary for the supervisor to dismiss a volunteer after counseling and other planning have not corrected the problem. Organizations need to have fairly applied policies and procedures for a volunteer’s dismissal, probation, suspension, and grievances. These policies, in effect, demonstrate that the work volunteers do in the organization is significant and that volunteers – just as paid staff – are held accountable for complying with the stated policies and regulations of the organization.

See MAVA's website to learn more about the VILT training and certification in Volunteer Impact Leadership.