Building Volunteer Capacity Lays the Foundations for Community

By Autumn Gambles, 2018 Sponsorship Director, New Liskeard Agricultural Society; 2018-19 Vice-Chair, Classic Theatre Cobalt Board of Directors


Through my experiences as a customer service representative, performance arts patron, and long-term community volunteer, I have noticed the often-underestimated role that volunteer inter-personal dynamics play in determining overall organizational success in goal achievement, and long-term patron/sponsor retention.

To begin with, many arts organizations are very fortunate to have recruited two distinct groups of volunteers. There are those who are able to help for shorter-term projects, and those that incorporate the activities of their arts organization into their regular monthly schedule of community volunteer opportunities throughout the year.

Recognizing that most people are very busy, and have limited time to dedicate to a volunteer-driven initiative, many volunteer coordinators encourage their volunteers to pick “something they are good at or would enjoy”. This method is indeed a great way to initially introduce new participants into the organization’s activities through a position within their comfort zone. However, there is also wisdom in then encouraging the volunteer to gradually take on new and diverse challenges as they become confident in their existing roles.

While volunteer staffing changes may at times seem counter-intuitive, there’s a lot of value in encouraging volunteers to try a broader array of positions than just one single role, like “ticket taker” or “usher”. Sometimes the person who is adamantly against being a “front-facing” customer service representative turns out to be a superstar when it comes to telephone fundraising. For better or worse, it is important to recognize that volunteers do not always know where they excel. In some cases, they may actually have personal characteristics that undermine the positive customer experience the organization tries to create for its patrons.

For example, I had the opportunity to work closely with one volunteer who insisted that their preferred role was handling Front of House ticket sales, where they operated solo. It was absolutely clear that this person had a special skill for quick price calculations. However, it soon became evident that their brusque manner with the public did not help foster a warm and friendly environment for our patrons (many of whom were attending the theatre for the first time). Instead, patrons were leaving the ticketing area feeling slightly miffed and unwelcome, which set the tone for their evening. We therefore needed to find a way to gently improve the volunteer’s customer service skills while allowing them to excel at the tasks they enjoyed.

A good solution to this issue was to enthusiastically ask the volunteer whether they could run the concessions cash. This position placed them with more experienced volunteers that encouraged friendly banter with patrons. The new role allowed the volunteer’s numeracy skills to shine, while fostering an environment to improve their interpersonal skills. This strategy allowed us to retain our volunteer and provide them with experience, while reducing their overall impact on patron relations during their growth.

From this experience, and other similar circumstances, I have come to the following conclusions about volunteers in community organizations, and the responsibilities of organizational leadership:

  • It is absolutely vital that a volunteer feels welcome and accepted in an organization.
  • Every effort must be made to find a role that suits the volunteer’s availability, skillset, and interests.
  • It is equally important that a volunteer’s personal disposition and ability to get along well with others further supports a positive patron experience, as well as positive experiences with co-volunteers.
  • Although it takes many years for an organization to build up trust, goodwill, and collaborative relationships within its community, a SINGLE negative personal interaction is sufficient to permanently drive other volunteers, sponsors, and patrons away from an organization;
  • In situations where a volunteer does not prove to be a “good fit” for a role, leadership must quickly take steps to remove the volunteer from that role, and place them in an alternative role more suited to their personal abilities.
  • It is OKAY to stop scheduling volunteers for customer-service facing roles, and simply include them in building/cleanup projects instead (which do not typically engage customers/patrons). Once the required skillsets are further developed through training activities, you can always reintroduce them to a previous role.
  • It is OKAY to recognize that some volunteers may not currently have the capacity or interest to work towards creating a warm, positive, and collaborative environment within the organization. If a volunteer ultimately proves to be antagonistic to the detriment of an organization’s culture and working atmosphere, it is OKAY to stop requesting that volunteer for event opportunities.
  • A good leader recognizes that their choices in volunteer staffing impact the organization as a whole. By choosing to neither proactively remove volunteers that are not a “good fit”, or quickly enroll them in new training opportunities when challenges arise, a leader risks the loss of many more volunteers who are alienated by negative interactions.
  • Ultimately, volunteering should be a warm, rewarding experience for all individuals in an organization. Many volunteers have an expectation of receiving some minor recognition and appreciation for the gift of their time and effort within the community. Most desire an up-beat and positive fellowship with their fellow volunteers.
  • A good leader will foster an environment that encourages friendly collaboration and the development of respectful relationships between volunteers, patrons, and sponsors. To do this, one must always lead by example.

By expanding a volunteer’s capacities within an organization, it is easier to build a connected community that can share the many pieces of institutional knowledge. Multidisciplinary training ensures smooth, trouble-free transitions as various volunteers come and go from a community arts organization. Most organizations rely on an ensemble of supporters in different stages of life. As the years pass, life commitments and personal priorities may limit the amount of time lead organizers have to participate. A time may come when many volunteers shift away from the organization at the same time, leaving little institutional memory in their wake.

One successful strategy to support both the change and rejuvenation of a volunteer leadership team is to create boards of directors and subcommittees. Each committee head/director will have an associate that essentially “shadows” or assists them in all of their tasks. While a lead committee head/director might stay in their leadership role for many years, the associate gradually gains experience and insight into the complexities of the leadership role. (Alternatively, some groups run lead directors and associates in overlapping 2-year terms. At the start of the last year of a director’s 2-year term, an associate director is appointed to shadow the director and assist with the director’s duties.)

When the incumbent director’s term is complete, the associate automatically moves into the director role, equipped with a wealth of experience to draw from. Through the use of these kinds of structural mechanisms, communication between older and newer volunteers can be enhanced. This ensures reduced workloads on often over-taxed leaders, as well as fostering knowledge transfer. A built-in turnover process also allows new volunteers to bring fresh ideas to the table while allowing older volunteers to explore different aspects of the organization without “burning out”.

Ultimately, one of the greatest ways that arts leaders can inspire patrons and sponsors to continue supporting the arts is by giving them the gift of happy, friendly, confident volunteers that are excited and passionate about the long-term success of their arts organization. It is such a joy to walk into a community arts event where everyone, from the ticket sellers to the cleanup crew, is happy to be there and where everyone is obviously enjoying one another’s company. Such an experience really makes your patrons think… “Hey, I’ve got some spare time… this would be a great place to VOLUNTEER!”



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