Accountability And Reporting

October 5, 2015       Susan Ellis      

Volunteers need to be responsive to procedures

You put effort into recruiting the most qualified volunteers, orienting and training them to accomplish needed work, and assigning them to a project. Once they are contributing their hours, you need to keep informed about exactly what they are doing. Collecting the number of hours volunteers serve is not at all the same as understanding how they fill that time.

It might be relatively simple to know about the activities of volunteers, whose role brings them into your facility, where they interact with the paid staff. Even in this situation, however, you might not be aware of exactly how they do their work, with whom they interact, and what they are not doing that perhaps would be even more useful.

The issue of oversight of work is even more critical when you consider how many volunteers work remotely or in the field for you. These can be one-to-one mentors, client home visitors, guest speakers, event program book ad seekers, and any kind of online volunteer communicating electronically. How can you maintain quality and consistency, while also ensuring that volunteers at a distance continue to feel connected to your organization?

Establishing a two-way communication and reporting system is not optional. You must be informed of what is being done in your organization’s name anywhere — not only for quality control, but also to protect both clients and volunteers. Think through what you need to know and develop a reporting procedure that is simple in content and easy to submit. And then, enforce it.

Getting Volunteer Compliance

It’s common to discuss reporting and hear a variation of “we can’t get volunteers to submit the reports we’ve asked for” (accompanied with a shoulder shrug). It might sound harsh, but a volunteer who does not or will not report is unacceptable in that role. Really. You will continue to find it hard to get reports submitted if you allow such non-compliance to have no consequences.

State clearly and specifically in all volunteer position descriptions that you require reports. Reinforce this expectation in all screening interviews and initial training sessions. When you do this nobody can say they didn’t know they would be asked to report. Then meet volunteers halfway with reports they might actually like to submit. Here are some ideas:

  • Explain why the report is important and how the data you gather will be used. (If you don’t intend to read and somehow act on what you are told, then don’t bother asking volunteers for something useless.)
  • Consider what is most important to learn and ask only those questions, designing a report form that is tailored to each volunteer assignment. Providing a form or template is so much more effective than expecting every volunteer to find a blank sheet of paper or open a new email and write you an essay every month.

A lot of information can be gathered with check boxes or single-word fill-in fields. Forms also allow you to compare volunteer reports against each other and from month-to-month. While you want such consistency, always include room for them to add whatever they want to share with you to expand the standard report.

  • Ask questions that make sense and have meaning. By all means collect data or statistics that show a level of activity (How many patients did you see today? How many books did you and the student read together this month?). Include some indicators of “impact” or “results,” which will vary with each assignment. (Did you see evidence of an increase in reading level? How?) It might be possible to provide a list of possible benchmarks or milestones from which the volunteer can check off those that were observed.
  • Offer options to report by email, on paper by mail or drop-off, by fax, by voice on a dedicated answering machine line, or online via a tool such as SurveyMonkey or SurveyGizmo. You can also meet in person or by phone (or Skype), but this is time-consuming, so perhaps alternate written reports with phone calls.
  • How often you need such reports will depend on the work, deadlines, and the experience of the volunteer. Set a schedule that keeps you both informed. Apart from requesting information directly from the volunteer, who else can periodically speak about the caliber and value of the work being done? What, if anything, do you need to know from clients or their families? Are there other people in a position to see the effects of a volunteer’s involvement, such as a nurse, social worker, teacher, probation officer? How will you collect such information?

Reading and Responding to Reports

Who will look at and respond to the reports and who will follow up if reports are not submitted is as important as collecting data.

Realize that you send the message that it doesn’t matter if you do not follow up the very first time a volunteer does not submit a report. Stress that you expect and will look at all reports every time. If you start out right, volunteers will soon comply.

Here are some other tips:

  • If you cannot respond to reports as soon as they come in, at least thank each volunteer (automatic email is fine) right away and promise to get back soon. Then, do it.
  • Share non-confidential information in the reports cumulatively with all the other volunteers, so that they see how together they are making a difference.
  • If you have many remote volunteers, create one or more team leader positions, assigning a volunteer to specifically follow up with off-site volunteers and connect with you.
  • You should, in turn, report to the volunteers on what you are doing. Such two-way communication will help them feel in-the-loop about what is going on.
  • At least occasionally, react directly to something reported. This might mean calling a volunteer who shared a very nice success story or following up on a problem identified to get more information.

Showing that you read and act on what volunteers tell you in their reports reinforces that reporting is useful to everyone. There are many volunteers who enjoy submitting reports as a way of sharing what they feel they are contributing. An effective reporting process is a form of volunteer recognition.

With the sort of reporting process just described, the volunteer who still refuses to report is refusing to be accountable. You can’t permit it to happen. After trying a few options, such as reporting by phone, if you cannot count on receiving the required information (when it is due), do not permit the volunteer to continue in that role. Volunteers will take note and self-enforcement will follow ever after.

Here’s one last thought: If you have a sign-in procedure for on-site volunteers through which you gather time in/time out to tally up hours served, why not add a single line to each date recorded and ask volunteers to tell you “What key activities did you do today?” This will give you a much more interesting and meaningful understanding of what volunteers contribute collectively to your organization.

A regular contributor to The NonProfit Times on the subject of volunteerism, Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a Philadelphia-based training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism and Everyone Ready® online volunteer management training program. Her email is