Developing a Volunteer / Intern Program

Mural: Big Things are HappeningBeing in start-up mode can feel overwhelming. Most startups have lots of ideas but little cash, which means that hiring staff to do everything that needs to be done often feels impossible. No wonder founders express frustration and burnout!

One thing we know about frustration and burnout, however, is that the answer is almost always hiding in plain sight – the assets and resources a group sometimes forgets they have.

By assets, we don’t mean cash assets, but the assets that are better than cash – the gifts and talents of people who care about the cause.

Our friend, the brilliant strategist Zach Braiker, recently reminded us of that fact. At Zach’s encouragement, we listed all the many tasks at Creating the Future that could be done by volunteers and interns. Some of those are tasks we wish we had time to do. Others are tasks we are already doing, which, if someone else did them, would free us up to focus on seeking scale-up funding.

We then broke all those projects down into tasks that could take 10 hours a week or less. And bingo! We had the makings of a huge volunteer / intern effort to move Creating the Future’s mission forward quickly, dramatically, exponentially. (If you are feeling overwhelmed, we highly recommend this exercise!!)

Which leaves one big task…
The next big step in this effort is to find someone to develop all this raw material into a real program – a volunteer / internship program for Creating the Future, to eventually be managed by a volunteer / intern.

Once the program is developed, we will then need a volunteer / intern to run it. Those two jobs – development and implementation – may end up being done by the same person, or we may find two individuals, each of whom excels at only one of these positions:

Job A) Volunteer / intern to develop the systems that will invite, screen, train and then coordinate the workflow of all those volunteers and interns.

Job B) Volunteer / intern who wants to handle the day-to-day of that job once it is created.

Job A is a short-term project, while Job B is more long-term, perhaps to be handled by a Vista or other long term volunteer / intern.

And so here are our questions:

1) Have you seen this sort of effort happen elsewhere? What has been your experience with it? What did you learn from what you’ve seen? What worked / what didn’t work? From your experience, does our assessment of the tasks at hand seem accurate?

2) What is exciting / intriguing about what we are suggesting? What do you think it makes possible – for Creating the Future’s mission, for the individual volunteers? To make those possibilities real, what would we need to have in place?

3) As we seek to define Job A – the person to develop the program – what qualifications should we be looking for? What questions should we be asking? What issues occur to you, that we may want to pay attention to?

4) What questions should we be asking overall about this effort, that you may not see asked here?

We are excited to get this program completely designed by September, so we can begin to seek all those volunteers and interns. So please let us know what occurs to you as you read this!

And if you are interested in either Job A or Job B, please send us a note by clicking the Contact button at the top of the page!!!

Photo: Mural at Big Brothers Big Sisters building, downtown Tucson 2012

13 thoughts on “Developing a Volunteer / Intern Program”

  1. These are great ideas-and, I think that developing both position A&B could be a win-win IF you might consider engaging a Humanics Scholar from either Fresno State or Arizona State to develop the positions as a project, or even as part of their 300 hr. required internship. I would hope that the person in either position would have or plan to have a CVA, or at least work in collaboration with the CCVA (Katie Campbell, et. al). I think with the credential, there is a better likelihood that the position would have more sustainability, and that those who serve in the position would be developing themselves as a Volunteer/CBO professional, while gaining valuable experience working with a worthwhile cause.
    I’d certainly be open to considering this position as an internship in the course I teach in the fall as CSU-Fresno, “Effective Administration of Volunteer Programs.”
    (btw, for our internship purposes, and to be able to include persons with disabilities, could these considered as “positions” rather than “jobs”?)

    • Absolutely to all you noted, Don. Yes, they could be positions. And yes to anything else that will facilitate this making sense within your program – it feels like a terrific fit. Thank you so much, both for your wisdom and for the offer!

  2. Just a comment that when I used to hire interns, I challenged them as much as possible, combined with as much coaching from me and other staff as they were willing to take advantage of. I made sure they had whole projects they could point to as their accomplishments (I designed that database! I wrote that brochure!), and knew how those fit into the overall program and organization. And I made sure I learned up-front about their aspirations and what skills they wanted to strengthen. I had interns who were initially unsure they could cope, but who came back from progress meetings at their college bursting with pride at what they’d been able to report. Their classmates had been shunted aside, reading or “helping.” Only they had tangible achievements. Interns applied to work for me after they finished their courses.

    So given CTF’s commitment to transparency, I think part of the design should be how the needs of CTF and the preferences of the intern will be balanced. Also, how much coaching and support will be available, and how much they will be expected to accomplish on their own with that help.

    • I agree, Jane – the coaching is a huge part of the success in internships (having been one myself 100 years ago, not to mention the myriad interns who have passed through our doors in the 20 years of our work in this field!). We know that hiring anyone, whether they are receiving financial remuneration or not, requires a ton of time and attention to do well. It’s one of the reasons we haven’t done this to date!

  3. Great step, Hildy! I started a volunteer and service learning center at a university, and managed several other volunteer programs, and here are a couple of thoughts:

    – In job A (Volunteer Program Developer): A typical product of this 4-6 week job is a 5-10 page annual volunteer management plan that aligns with CTF’s strategic plan. Be sure that the full volunteer management cycle is included in the plan, including recruitment, screening, training, supervision, evaluation, recognition, and exit. This plan may also include some preliminary policies, job descriptions, etc., but those are often developed in real time by job B (Volunteer Program Coordinator). Often a plan like this will also include a short “resources” section as an overview of volunteer management resources and best practices, and recommend 2-3 as key resources that match your organization’s culture. (i.e. there are different best practices for membership organizations, advocacy, etc.). The volunteer management plan should be high-level enough that any new volunteer manager can get get an overview, but detailed enough to know “what to do next” in an annual cycle.

    – It’s a real gift to develop a volunteer program from the ground up (as opposed to auditing and retrofitting an existing program), but it’s likely you’ll still be building it even as you put your first volunteers to work. Consider job A (Volunteer Program Developer) the roadmap-maker (end product is an annual volunteer management plan), but also help job B (Volunteer Program Coordinator) see their first year as developing capacity toward the plan. For example, in the first quarter, the coordinator may need to work with a board subcommittee to research, draft and approve all volunteer policies. In the second quarter, the coordinator may need to work with staff to do mini-trainings on volunteer management best practices, etc. After the first year, it should be more of a typical volunteer management cycle.

    – In both jobs, ensure that knowledge transfer is a part of the job description. Plan for transition. The folks who develop and manage your volunteer program will learn so much about the field of volunteer management (and what works for your particular volunteers), as well as day-to-day how-tos (passwords, how to make the contacts database do what you want, how to get certain volunteers to return phone calls, etc.), and that knowledge is an organizational asset you don’t want to lose when people move on. You want them to hold that expertise for the organization, but you also want them to build the capacity of the organization to work with volunteers, not just their own professional skills. How can they document and communicate what they learn and build? A good rule of thumb is to have a build-as-you-go “how-to” document for each major area of work (database management, volunteer screening/training, etc.) that is far more detailed than the annual volunteer management plan, and have each staff/volunteer manager add to and edit the how-to before leaving their post. Write it into the job description from the beginning, check in on it, and make sure it’s done before the volunteer exits the program. Otherwise, the program will need to be rebuilt every time there is turnover.

    – As supervisors, be sure you work knowledge and culture of volunteerism throughout CTF. Just as you don’t want to leave the know-how and culture of philanthropy to only an ED and development director, so also you want all levels and roles in your organization to understand how the values and practice of volunteerism helps the organization reach its mission. In other words, don’t recruit volunteers just to get work done, but also as a key strategy in your board’s vision, mission and programs.

    Good luck and have fun!

    • Liz – can I just blanketly say THANK YOU for each and every kernel in what you wrote? It is wonderful!

      As for “working knowledge and culture of volunteerism throughout CTF” we see it as something larger than a culture of volunteerism (which gets to Lisa’s comment below re: if we had all the money we need – GREAT question btw, Lisa!) It is a culture of deep engagement, where all of us are in this together, building the work that will build a better world.

      And so it is not even a key strategy – it is a matter of principle. We know the only way change happens is if people are engaged in making that change happen. So for us it’s not about volunteerism – it’s about deep engagement being the key to creating deeply engaged communities.

      And is that ever cool!

  4. To add to the great comments above, you are taking a great approach to incorporating volunteers into all aspects of your mission and organization – a real service enterprise. I would refer you to for more information on the movement.
    Also you do not need to do this work alone -there are organizations all over the country that specialize in providing technical assistance to organizations looking to increase and improve their ability to engage volunteers. The organization I lead is such an organization but in other cities we are known as Volunteer Centers, Centers for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership, Chicago Cares, and HandsOn … to name a few. Many are listed on the HandsOn Network website.
    We offer training in volunteer leadership and management as well as a website that can help connect you to people who are interested in the volunteer opportunities you would like to fill.
    In addition to interns I would encourage you to consider the older person – someone who has or is about to leave the traditional workforce but still wants to be engaged in their community. They have terrific skills and insight to share- RSVP – a national Senior Corps program can assist you in locating these great resources.
    I would be happy to assist you -keep us posted on your progress.

    • Love the website link, and LOVE the thought about older adults. And the best words I could hear these days are, “you do not need to do this work alone.” Wishing you could see my shoulders relax as I read your words!

  5. First of all, I value the mindful way in which you are approaching this! I would echo Cathy’s suggestion to look at The research and best practices around volunteer engagement that are coming out of this multi-sector national initiative are top notch. I would also second Don’s opinion that the development phase of your new volunteer program be done by someone with experience – a CVA, Humanics Scholar, or experienced volunteer program administrator. Creating and managing an effective and impactful volunteer program takes more knowledge about human resources, motivation, systems theory, and impact evaluation than many people realize.

    An important first step that you and your board members should take, before either of your opportunities is filled, is to develop a purpose statement for your volunteer program. The statement is a companion to your mission and vision and defines how volunteer involvement will contribute to the achievement of CTF’s mission. A great place to start on this is with the question – “If we had all of the money we needed and could hire staff to do all that we want to accomplish, why would we still want to engage volunteers?” Once you start brainstorming on this, you’ll find that the answers are plentiful!

    I’ve got lots more resources on this that I can share when I see you next week. =)

    • Lisa:
      Creating the purpose statement is actually embedded into our theory of change (which I am currently writing) as a core principle of that theory. As I noted above, it goes beyond a purpose for volunteerism – it is about authentic engagement being at the core of every aspect of our work, as we do our best to walk the talk of what it would look like to have a fully engaged community. So thank you for the reminder and the connection between all of this. It is getting me very excited for our lunch next week!

  6. Finally have a moment to check in here – I didn’t want to do just a cursory glance – this is too important. And the stuff you all have shared is mind-blowing!

    Will definitely check out every link and reference you provided. And if any of you have suggestions for folks who might want to create this program as their own volunteer project, please let us know – we’re going to be announcing this more broadly in our next newsletter, but you guys are already “on the page” and we we’d love to talk with any folks you might send our way!

    Thanks again to you, Don, Jane, Liz, Cathy and Lisa. You guys totally rock!

  7. As someone who’s planning on opening a nonprofit in the near future, I’d like to do this from the get-go, so all of this feedback is great for me! 🙂 My organization plans to rely heavily on volunteers so I think it’s important to have something like this from the very start. And I really will be starting from scratch, so I will definitely be taking Don’s suggestion into consideration.

  8. We need to vastly augment volunteerism in all public sectors of service including functionaries and elected officials so that, in the event of strike action in essential services (are they not all essential????)tge paying public (are they not all paying???) is not deprived. Volunteers would need to familiarize themselves with every aspect of the job for which they would be embedded.


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