When building teams of volunteers, don’t miss out on the opportunity of pre-field briefing and debriefing:
Building teams of volunteers; well-adjusted, prepared teams of volunteers (as well as long-term donors and friends); doesn’t just happen. And it doesn’t start on the field once those volunteers actually start working. It begins with your early communications, discovering why a person has agreed to volunteer, how well you match them with opportunities, communicating your organization’s vision and purpose, and managing their expectations, as well as helping them prepare, pack and connect with fellow volunteers. That is why it is surprising that so many organizations treat their teams of volunteers as loosely knit temporary help that meet randomly, and hopefully “get along,” once in-country.
Instead, organizations should do what many colleges and universities are now doing: Connecting volunteers TO ONE ANOTHER on social media long before they actually get on a plane. Tapping any prior experience. Allowing them to help one another prepare. To start building relationships of trust and friendship. Because these early days are filled with positive endorphins and hope and catch people at their best.
Plan to gather volunteers together at your headquarters or in a central location. So what if your offices are drywall and laptops sitting on packing crates, crammed into some existing business? All the better for them to see your thriftiness and entrepreneurial energy! And this pre-field training can help them see what other volunteers do in other locations, who might be coming to join them later in the year, and to “buy-in” to your overall way of doing things, and your vision and values. It also gives you a chance to see if there are any concerns you should communicate with your on-field, or team, leaders regarding personalities and team dynamics.
What if some volunteers won’t be leaving till later? Do you bring them all in, only to have them go back home weeks or months prior to departure overseas? That is one way to look at it. Another view is to consider these later departures as people equipped to spread your organization’s vision, becoming mobilizers and communicators of your vision for the next 3-6 months. If you’ve connected them to teammates going earlier, it might also give them a better chance to prepare themselves prior to takeoff, especially if they work, or are in school. So you will need to decide if it is worth the cost/trouble to bring them all together, versus meeting online or using email communications for briefing/training. One thing about “face-to-face” training: You know they heard you, you know if they have “bought-in” to your vision, AND you have a better opportunity to connect and address any issues/questions/deficiencies and concerns. (Story continues after image below)
Should you ALSO do “on-field” briefing and orientation? That depends on how vastly different a volunteer situation they will be working in. Consider your home country pre-field training to be about your organization’s values, vision, general training, expectations, and packing/preparation as well as team building. Use in-country briefings/orientation to talk about daily life, security, specific work tasks, how to survive in-country, where things are at, how to get around, specific cultural training/sensitivity, as well as team building/bonding with those already serving in-country and your local staff. Note: You don’t want to have too many meetings (sitting listening to “experts”) before ever having volunteers do something. These are volunteers, who joined you to do something, to make a difference, so make sure there are ways they can immediately make an impact, even if that means helping stuff envelopes to get out a big mailing, or loading trucks with supplies for delivery to the field, right away, as part of your orientation. On-field, see if there is any way you can immediately throw them into helping in some way as part of their orientation. It will cause them to feel they are having an immediate impact and that satisfaction will help them relax, rather than feeling your training/orientation time is “wasted,” when they simply want to get on with “doing.”
How important is local, in-field training and orientation? It’s huge, once again for new volunteers to meet and get to know both long-term staff and local staff. Volunteers can then be won over, know who to go to with issues and concerns, grow in confidence, and feel more relaxed/comfortable knowing your organization is well-run and prepared to receive them.
DEBRIEF – “Degrief”
Getting together individually, and with the team, at the end of a trip, whether in-country or back home, is critical to the process. To resolve any issues, allow you to learn from your volunteers, help them deal with any expectations that were unmet, help you learn how to better communicate and address whether the stated goals and expectations in pre-field orientation were met. It also gives you (and them) the opportunity to reflect on their impact, as well as address how they can stay connected and continue to be involved in the project – [Organizations that find ways for volunteers to stay connected to ongoing efforts and community-based projects are 10x more likely to see those individuals give and/or encourage friends to go on similar trips in the future maximizing your volunteers and their goodwill.]
Especially if individuals found the trip to be challenging or discouraging (for ay number of reasons), having a time to discuss and learn and even let go of emotions can be a powerful time and can turn around an experience that otherwise might not have gone as planned. It tells individuals that they are important and their time and commitment is valuable and that as an organization, your volunteers come first. You might want to look into peace-making and conflict resolution training and books and have someone ready to step in to help resolve any personal or personality conflicts that may have arisen on the field. These are valuable times with many opportunities to grow and learn if handled wisely and immediately following a trip. They are issues that should also be handled in person, with all involved when at all possible, rather than later via survey or by email.
By all means, follow up your debriefing a few weeks after volunteers return home by a phone call and via email to see how they are doing, and what’s changed since they returned home. Don’t see this as an “ask” for money, but rather use the opportunity to establish, and reinforce your desire for their long-term well-being, and relationship. Express your desire regarding the individual’s growth and long-term integration and involvement with those they served and your organization.
A few more ideas on how to build a super team can be found at http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashoka/2012/07/03/superteam-ordinary-volunteers/
Have your own ideas on volunteer team training or have some resources you found helpful and would like to recommend to others? Email us at (Re: blogging on short-term training resources!) and we’ll check them out! Or, write a blog article on the subject and maybe we’ll post it so others can benefit from your experiences and knowledge!