Essential vs Nice to Have
When I started my last job, someone mentioned perhaps I could revise our volunteer application. What I came across was terrifying. An application that was four single-spaced pages long, plus three different agreements to sign. All this to pack groceries in the food pantry! Was all this really needed?
Years before that encounter, I worked for a large, national nonprofit. They, too, sometimes seemed to have very onerous paperwork. I wondered,” Is this all really needed?”
When I started my own nonprofit, I made a vow to keep the paperwork to only what was absolutely necessary. Surprisingly, what was required was actually very manageable. Even as the small nonprofit grew, and the required paperwork grew with it, what is essential remained much less than what many nonprofits deem “essential.”
Determining “Too Much”
One of the most productive things you can do as a Volunteer Manager is take an annual review of the required paperwork for your volunteers. Start with your volunteer application: Is there additional information you found yourself requesting from your volunteers through the year? If so, it is time to add that to the form. Are there questions that are no longer relevant? I especially think of driver’s license numbers, social security numbers, even addresses. Some information may have been asked when the form was developed with anticipation of what might be needed, yet you never ended up using that info, and the question was never deleted. Do you ask Race/Ethnicity? That might be essential for your reporting requirements, but is the listing up to date? Same for gender or prefix. Scrutinize each question.
Other forms to revisit annually include any liability waivers, photo releases, or other agreements. Many agencies put COVID19 waivers in place at the beginning of the pandemic. Should they be modified today? Your insurance and compliance folks will really appreciate you for checking in.
One of my benchmarks I try to follow as a Volunteer Manager is really putting myself in the place of my volunteers. If I were to volunteer for my agency, does this make sense?
As for the food pantry volunteer application, sleuthing uncovered that the application was devised decades earlier, for volunteers serving in the medical clinic (ahha, that explained so many of those questions!); when the pantry started using volunteers, they just kept the same form. No one ever questioned the process—though most volunteers felt it was over the top. I was able to revise it down to essential questions with a few optional ones, to an easy 1-pager. And if we ever use volunteers in the clinic again, we will build an application appropriate to those responsibilities.
Turns out the application process for the large national organization was all essential. As a large program, reporting requirements, liability stipulations put upon by the risk management and insurance departments, and considering the population we served, all required quite a bit of documentation. The important note here is that when any volunteer asked, “Why?,” all staff could knowledgeably answer that question, and help the volunteer feel comfortable and rest assured it wasn’t a futile effort.
At the small nonprofit, as funding reporting requirements grew, and as programs were added, and situations came up each year, the paperwork did expand. But the process of annual reviews strove to keep everything relevant and reminded everyone why we asked the questions we asked.
Not Too Much to Ask!
Volunteers will appreciate your efforts. Keeping forms up to date, simple as possible, and a willingness to explain why any question is on the form demonstrates care and consideration for your volunteers. This is the beginning (hopefully) of a long and productive relationship. Easy vs onerous paperwork is sure to get you started on the right foot!