Working With Volunteer Groups

Perhaps one of the most challenging tasks that a recreation professional will face is working harmoniously with volunteer youth sports or special interest associations. It’s not an easy task, but there are some basic actions that can help make the process much smoother.

First, there is no cookie-cutter solution that can be applied everywhere because everyone’s circumstances are unique. The best solution for a small city may not be right for a large county.

Therefore, as with any management decision, options must be weighed against circumstances to determine the best course of action.

Broad Perspective

Looking at this from a broader perspective, learning to successfully work with volunteer organizations is inherent in what public administration authors Janet and Robert Denhardt call the “New Public Service.”

In this view, administrators serve citizens, not customers. The Denhardts write, “The public interest is the result of a dialogue about shared values rather than the aggregation of individual self-interests. Therefore, public servants do not merely respond to the demands of ‘customers,’ but rather focus on building relationships of trust and collaboration with and among citizens.”

With that view in mind, volunteers become citizens who wish to serve a public purpose by getting involved. It is up to administrators to provide the tools and environment in which the volunteers can be successful.

In today’s strapped fiscal environment, local recreation departments are relying more and more on volunteer organizations to help provide services to citizens.

It is a “self-help” environment where citizens and administrators work together to provide a public service.

It’s a “pay to play” arrangement, and if people want special services, they either need to be willing to pay for them outside the normal tax base and/or step up to the plate and invest sweat equity.

Paid staffs who work with volunteers in any capacity must first understand that while they are being monetarily compensated to hold up their end of the partnership, volunteers aren’t. Volunteers are compensated in other ways, either helping with a program in which their child participates or providing a self-fulfilling public service.

However, while volunteers can’t be treated like paid staff, there are some parallel actions that should be taken.

Managing Volunteers

One of the problems managers identify about working with volunteers is that they are sometimes unreliable. Alan Andreasen and Philip Kotler note in their book, Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations, that one manager described the “rule of thirds” in relation to volunteers.

One third of volunteers on a project are self-motivated, work very hard and are very dependable. At the other end of the spectrum, a third only want to be able to tell their friends they are volunteering and don’t really want to work. It’s motivating and guiding the third in the middle that can make or break a volunteer program.

The solution that experienced administrators have employed is to treat volunteers as much as possible like professional, full-time employees. It is true that many times recreation administrators don’t have a big choice in who volunteers for the third-party programs. Of course, if the program is one that the department is operating, then they have a great deal of control.

Either way, establishing upfront, clear guidelines regarding expectations on both sides of the fence is vital to success.

Using Written Agreements

A good way to achieve this is by a written agreement. An agreement sets up job responsibilities both for the volunteer and the government entity. Both volunteers and managers will understand the goals of the partnership and what is expected of each of them. It also establishes performance levels and expectations and consequences if they are not met. It is important to follow through on these standards if they are compromised.

Peachtree City’s Recreation Administrator, Sherry McHugh (CPRP), directly manages 11 youth sports associations and less directly oversees three special interest groups. She notes there has been more than one occasion that she has had to hold either her staff’s feet or those of the association to the fire to ensure compliance with agreed-upon standards.

“Volunteers have jobs and families and other things going on in their lives,” she says. “So sometimes the volunteer responsibilities fall back in their priority list, and we need to remind them of the obligation they accepted.”

Likewise, she points out, the recreation department has myriad other programs, activities, special events and administrative tasks, each with its own set of needs. At times the department’s staff needs to be re-directed to bolster support for the groups.

Proper Oversight

In Peachtree City, the city provides land, facilities and, in some cases, equipment or supplies for the various sports or special interests. The city normally builds needed amenities and maintains them, although in the tightened fiscal environment, that is now subject to change.

In exchange, the volunteer organization provides a full program for that particular activity. It provides all registration, scheduling and administrative functions needed to run the program.

In addition, it contributes to the upkeep of the facilities through a special “fenced account” within the city budget. Associations contribute a set amount per season based on registration to the fund, which can only be used to upgrade or improve the facility or facilities they use. They can also invest additional funds into the account if they wish.

There are slight variations to this general arrangement. For example, the Dog Park Association raised most of the money to build a dog park on land the city donated. The association primarily is responsible for maintenance, although the recreation department provides basic services, such as trash collection, water and security.

There have also been instances where the recreation department and even city management or elected officials have had to step in to help mediate issues within volunteer associations.

McHugh cites two separate instances where internal strife among the volunteers compromised the organization’s ability to smoothly deliver service to the public. In both cases it rose as high as the mayor in order to straighten things out.

Another point that is emphasized to associations is that even though they may be independent organizations, the fact that they use city facilities makes every action they take reflective on city government. For that reason, the department requires a certain level of oversight authority in the agreement to ensure that actions taken by associations are compatible with the goals, mission and values of the city.

“We truly don’t want to get involved with the day-to-day running of the associations,” says McHugh, who adds that because of the presence of volunteers, many of the programs can exist without a significant increase in paid staff.

Only One Model

This is only one way to handle relationships with volunteer associations. It works for Peachtree City, but it may not be for everyone.

The range of options runs from having a gentleman’s (or gentlewoman’s) agreement sealed with a handshake to a multi-page agreement reviewed by attorneys and signed by all parties.

“When we first started with the formal agreement several years ago, it was two or three pages,” McHugh recalls.

“Now it’s up to about 12 pages and we still add things from time to time. As issues come up that appear to have potential application to all organizations, we amend the agreement.”

There are also times when an agreement is tailored to a specific set of circumstances; for instance, separate and slightly different agreements are in effect for recreational and “select” programs.

The agreement is reviewed each year during a meeting of all association presidents and the department staff and recreation commission (a five-member volunteer group appointed by city council). Any new changes are highlighted and discussed.

After that meeting, each association has the opportunity to review the agreement prior to signing by the president. Once the agreement is in place, it guides the relationship for the next year of operations.

Streamlining Association Communication

McHugh stresses that sometimes a volunteer is voted in as president, and really has no clue about the inner workings and dynamics of the association.

“We find ourselves dealing with just more than the president, which would be the ideal situation,” she says. “When a president travels a lot because of a paid job, someone else who can make decisions has to be in place for us to work with.”

About four years ago Peachtree City also included an addendum to each agreement. The addendum is developed during individual meetings with association officers and the department staff. It contains specific actions that both the city and the association intend to take in the upcoming programming year to improve the facility.

In addition, it documents what actions were taken the year before by each entity.

The perfect working relationship between municipal staff and volunteer organizations probably doesn’t exist. There will always be challenges to overcome because it’s an ever-changing, fluid relationship.

However, at the center of every successful effort is communication. Clear, concise communication between all parties involved will ensure that everyone knows “who’s on first.”

Randy Gaddo has for 10 years been the Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation and library) in Peachtree City, Ga. He and his staff work with 11 different youth sports associations and three special interest associations. Prior to that, he was a U.S. Marine Corps public affairs officer for 20 years. As part of his duties, he was a community relations liaison with various volunteer groups in the cities surrounding bases where he was stationed. He just completed work for a Master in Public Administration, with much formal education on working with volunteers. He can be reached at e-mail