Processes don’t work, people do

A new piece of jargon is slowly creeping into the language of volunteer management – onboarding. Thankfully it has nothing to do with water sports like wakeboarding or boogie boarding or water related torture method, waterboarding.

No, as Jac Van Beek wrote in a recent blog post for the Canadian Association of Management Consultants, “onboarding refers to the conscious process of bringing someone ‘on board’ through orientation, introductions, a bit of training, a few simple inaugural tasks to get started to help figure out how things work around here and assess how people work together.”

Onboarding isn’t a new term, it’s been around for a while. There is (inevitably) a wikipedia page about it. However, I am seeing it creeping into the language of the volunteering world more and more. Whilst I personally dislike the term, I don’t have a problem with it’s use. My concern lies with what it emphasises.

As Mr Van Beek’s blog post states (and it’s worth a read in full) a worrying number of potential volunteers never get started because they never hear back from the organisation(s) they want to donate their time to. Consider: 20% of people who try to volunteer through Do-It never hear back from the organisation; Volunteer Scotland estimate that half of all enquiries about volunteering receive no response within three weeks. Three weeks!

Onboarding emphasises processes as a solution to this. These processes make it clear how enquiries should be handled, how recruitment, screening, selection and induction should integrate to give a seamless and constructive introduction to volunteering. But as John Seeley Brown noted, “Processes don’t work, people do”. In other words, we can have all the onboarding processes we like but if people at the organisation aren’t fully committed to engaging volunteers then they will only have limited impact.

We can tell an employee that any volunteer enquiries they receive must get a response within x hours but if that person has lots of other responsibilities and doesn’t see volunteering as that important then the response time will lag and onboarding fail at the first hurdle.

In training I often ask people to consider how their organisation would handle a donation of £20,000 and a donation of £20,000 worth of someone’s time. Over and over I hear that the cash would be welcomed and the volunteering largely ignored. All the onboarding processes in the world won’t solve that issue, it’s a cultural challenge that sees the donated hour as less valuable than the donated pound.

So what is the solution? The answer is varied and complex, much longer than I have time to cover in this blog post.

One point to note is that those who lead and manage volunteers need to get better at influencing and effecting change within their organisations. Later this year NCVO will be running training for Volunteer Managers on that very issue and I am getting more requests to speak on the topic at events I attend. So, next month, I’ll focus my blog post on giving you some pointers on how to influence more effectively.

4 Responses to “Processes don’t work, people do”

  1. Michael Phillips

    Thanks as ever for the blog Rob. My understanding is that onboarding is actually the process when a successful application to volunteer has been made – it’s a post recruitment task.
    What many, many charities who engage with volunteers need to get better at (as you mention above) is simply ‘customer service’, which is the nitty gritty of responding to enquiries in good time.

    • Rob Jackson

      Yes indeed Michael, which chimes with my main point that processes are needed but a pro-volunteering culture is even more important.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Julie

    I agree with most of what you say Rob. However, as a the Volunteer Coordinator of a relatively small charity my experience with Do-It has been that of all the potential volunteer applicants who have expressed an interest in our volunteer roles, and who I have responded to, almost 100% of them failed to get back to me. The one person that did was 15 years old and unfortunately too young to volunteer with our organisation (in the role advertised). So this works both ways! In many smaller organisations, such as ours, the ‘volunteering department’ is a one-(wo)man-band – probably not even dedicated – at least full-time – to the Volunteer Manager role and I suspect I am not alone in finding a lot of time and energy effectively wasted on responding to enquiries and applications, and even running interviews and inductions, that never lead beyond that.

    • Rob Jackson

      Hi Julie. Thanks for commenting. Your situation is indeed common and a downside of online recruitment is the ease with which people can fire off applications regardless of suitability to real desire to get involved. I think it’s important to remember though that a one person Volunteer Manager (often not full time as you say) does have a key resource available to them to help manage volunteers, from recruitment and on boarding right through the person’s engagement with the organisation. That key resource is…volunteers! So much more can be achieved as a limited time Volunteer Manager if we have volunteers help us in our own work, expanding our capacity, adding value and showing that we walk the talk of volunteer involvement.


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