Volunteering is the key to the success of U3As in offering lifelong learning to older members of the community. However, many U3As report difficulty in recruiting and retaining volunteers for the many tasks required for efficiency of management. Manningham U3A has developed a system of recruiting volunteers that effectively minimises this difficulty. The system is based on educational and psychological principles and practice.
Prior to its introduction in 1996, approximately 15% of our members were involved in contributing something to the organisation. That included tutoring, administrating, catering, room preparation and so on. Progressively since the introduction of the system that percentage has increased to over 95% of members being actively involved in contributing something to the organisation.
Offering members the choice of one or more task when they enrol
Recruiting members with specialised skills for particular tasks
Acknowledging the contributions made by members
Providing incentives for all volunteers
Communicating positive messages about the organisation to all members
Broad categories of tasks are identified, then more specific tasks listed within each of those categories. See the Member Participation Form for details.
After a paragraph about the volunteering philosophy of U3A world-wide, we say: Please demonstrate your appreciation of what the tutors donate so generously, by selecting one or more areas where you would most like to make your contribution. Here the wording is clearly an expectation, not a request or a complaint. The answer cannot be Yes or No to have a satisfactory outcome.
Members are offered the opportunity to name any area of skill or experience they have had which they would be willing to share with the organisation. When an administrative task becomes vacant, this information is used to find someone with appropriate skills to fill the task.
All volunteers are formally thanked at least once a year. The tutors and members of administrative groups are given a special luncheon. Morning teas are given to office workers and class reps. At every function, a co-ordinator welcomes people bringing food and thanks them for it. A public thank you is made to the volunteers involved in every function. Each Newsletter carries a thank you to the volunteers who have contributed in the previous term. Individuals are thanked personally, informally, whenever appropriate.
Appreciation is shown to all volunteers at the end of each year when they are enrolling for the following year's classes. Members are invited to enrol in order of the time commitment their tasks involved. That is, committee members, other administrative officers and tutors enrol first, office workers and class reps. second, and all other volunteers third. New members do not enrol until all re-enrolling is complete. Because many of our classes have waiting lists, this is an extremely effective incentive. It is important to advise members fully when introducing this scheme, and even more important to follow up with exactly what has been advised. We found members took little notice of what we said we would do until we acted on it, so it took one year to get really effective results.
The organisation consists of a small Committee of Management (no more than 9 members), each member being responsible for at least one sub-committee. Tasks such as Enrolment, Office Roster, Catering, Newsletter and Brochure are co-ordinated by people who do not necessarily have committee positions. They are called Positions of Responsibility (PORs). One member of the Committee of Management takes responsibility for co-ordinating all volunteers.
When members enrol they are asked to fill in a Member Participation Form. This form includes the tasks in categories and sub-categories, the numbers required for each task, and the meeting dates for that category where that applies. There is also a question about previous employment and skills.
Following enrolment, members' responses to the participation form are collated.
Each task is allocated a co-ordinator. Co-ordinators are enlisted from those who have selected management tasks, or on the basis of previous employment.
Co-ordinators meet with a designated committee member to discuss their tasks and offer suggestions.
Co-ordinators are given lists of the volunteers in their category. They may meet with the volunteers to discuss distribution of work tasks, and/or to provide training and support. Where tasks are complex, such as with office duty, detailed procedures are provided in writing to all volunteers.
Messages to volunteers are put in an optimistic way. For example, “There is an opportunity for people to help in the office on the following days” rather than “There are a lot of gaps in the office roster that need filling.”
There is a sense of purpose evident among the members. Members can see that their contribution has boundaries, and that almost everyone is participating. They know they will not be 'roped in' for more tasks, because everything is distributed across the membership.
There are more volunteers than required for most tasks - a pleasant problem.
The office is staffed with two people for two shifts every school day. We find members like to have company and backup while on office duty. Each new office worker is rostered on with two experienced workers.
The year's office roster is almost fully booked by February.
All functions are fully catered, including the drinks and beverages. Committee members are therefore available to welcome visitors.
All positions on committee of management and sub-committees are occupied.
New tutors keep volunteering; we don't need to seek them.
The proportion of tutors to members has risen from 10% to 13%.
All tutors have a class representative who looks after the administrative aspects of running the class.
Every member in a position of responsibility has an assistant or assistants, to learn the task and to take over when needed.
Members respond to requests readily when they are reminded that they ticked a box to indicate their willingness to help.
This model has applications for organisations of any size.
The incentive must be appropriate to the members' needs. Where no incentive can be found, the response is likely to be much less apparent, but still preferable to 'begging' for volunteers.
This system demonstrates how incentives do not need to be monetary, or even tangible.
Q Aren't you just using bribery and coercion?
A No, because the system is explained to members before they enrol, and they have a choice about what they do. It is their choice whether they want to work for an incentive (as everyone does in the paid workforce) or not.
Q Isn't it a lot of work?
A It was a lot of work to set it up, but the outcomes are so enjoyable that motivation is high to continue and improve the system continuously.
Any questions or comments about this paper may be addressed to me by e-mail to the U3A Office. Iam happy to talk to any U3A about how this system may be adapted to their needs.