Some health promoters resist developing a network of volunteers because of the:

  • Time and energy to recruit them
  • Extensive training to get them up to speed
  • Time-consuming management
  • Risk of an evangelist with off-base ideas
  • Belief people are already too busy at work to get involved
  • Fear of losing some control or autonomy.

You can overcome each concern and still benefit from the many advantages volunteers offer.

Recruitment

Just as hiring an employee is one of the most important decisions you’ll make, recruiting the right volunteers is vital to the network’s success. Some suggestions:

  • Set up an application process. Outline a job description, including responsibilities, activities, and time commitment. Emphasize the benefits — both individual and organizational — of participating. Describe personal and professional growth potential/rewards.
  • Put out a general call for applicants. Announce it in newsletters, department meetings, break room/cafeteria postings, program promotion materials, etc.
  • Recruit personally. Seek out current and former participants who’ve had success using your services. Ask supervisors to recommend those with leadership skills.

Training

Limit training to the role of program advocate. It’s not important volunteers know as much about disease prevention as you do, but they must clearly understand and have the tools to promote your wellness services. Some ideas:

  • Prepare an easy-to-use guide. Divide content into 4-6 sections, paralleling responsibilities outlined in the job description. Include tips, checklists, and examples of ways to carry out their tasks.
  • Conduct a group orientation. Host an initial training session to review the guide, reinforce roles, and share programming plans for the next 6-12 months.
  • Follow up individually. Meet with volunteers in their work setting to learn about their jobs and determine special training as well as support needs.

Management

A vital, active network requires continuous management and communication. If you try to take on all the tasks yourself it could easily become a full-time job. Be sure to:

  • Assign ongoing responsibilities. Delegate preparing agendas, writing meeting minutes, duplicating and distributing materials, etc.
  • Use technology. Broadcast email, voice mail, and faxes help keep everyone in the loop as well as allow volunteers to provide input between formal meetings.
  • Consider electing officers. If you’re comfortable relinquishing more control, officers can take on a leadership role, allowing you to become an adviser to the group.

Zealots

It’s inevitable that someone in the group will emerge with an overzealous desire to have the organization subsidize vitamins or make overweight people pay more for health insurance. To keep control:

  • Recruit carefully. Interview potential candidates about their personal health habits and philosophy.
  • Remind tactfully. State the group’s purpose in regular communications. Try not to stifle enthusiasm by quashing off-the-wall suggestions immediately. Allow the group to bring around members who go off on tangents.

Time Commitment

It’s true — in many organizations employees are stretched pretty thin. On the other hand, people will find the time to support a cause they’re committed to. Try these suggestions:

  • Limit meetings. Keep them short and no more often than monthly.
  • Make it easy. Keep tasks simple, easy to carry out, yet meaningful.
  • Avoid subcommittees. Resist forming subcommittees that need to meet and plan outside of regular meetings.
  • Don’t force it. Let people volunteer for extra responsibilities instead of assigning them.

Control/Autonomy

Natural leaders will emerge from the group. If their leadership style is compatible with the network’s mission, give them space to lead. If they begin to dominate, limiting involvement and input from other members, step in to take control. Other tips:

  • Be especially careful about recruiting management-level people into the volunteer group. Their mere presence could intimidate some or cause them to hold back. Consider a management sponsor instead — someone who can support the group without attending meetings, but will go to bat for you when needed.
  • Reinforce your leadership role by recognizing, rewarding, and celebrating individual accomplishments within the network. Make everyone know their contribution is important through personal phone calls and thank-you notes.

Whether you’re a health promotion department of 1 or have a full staff and budget, you can get a lot of mileage from a strong field force of volunteer advocates. Take a moment today to assess how well you’re using this valuable resource, then make plans to create a vital, energized network.

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