Category Archives: professionalism

But They’re Volunteers!

I have heard this a few times, most especially very recently. In context, the statement goes something like, “We can’t hold them to professional standards, they’re volunteers.” To that I say that, yes, we can hold them to professional standards, and moreover, we should.

For context, I had the pleasure, and honor, of volunteering with the Virginia Search and Rescue community for just about three years. During that time, teams, as a whole, responded to between fifty and seventy state-managed missions a year, in addition to whatever their local communities came up with (event standbys, local rescue squad wilderness rescues, etc). Within that group, there are two (2) paid individuals: the SAR coordinator and Deputy SAR coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. They were responsible for being the teams’ primary interface with VDEM, which is the mechanism by which teams were dispatched to missions.

Every other individual in the system was a volunteer. Despite the fact that they were volunteers, they were all held to a consistent, high standard, that left a strong positive impression with the agencies with which they interacted and fostered a sense of unity that left many outside observers unable to discern that multiple regional teams were present. These volunteers provided both timely, efficient, and effective search resources and safe, effective patient care when extracting a subject from the wilderness. In addition, in the cases where subjects were found deceased, these individuals conducted themselves according to best practices of crime scene preservation.

On the whole, these volunteers conducted significant amounts of training in the practice of all aspects of search and rescue. As a result, they were valuable assets to any law enforcement entity that availed itself of their resources.

Similarly, while I was with my local search and rescue team, we worked closely with the local volunteer rescue squad, whose members were also all volunteers (a number of members, including myself, were trained to both standards). Emergency Medical Services standards for volunteers are no different than those for paid providers, so these individuals, again, conducted themselves according to industry standards to provide twenty-four-hour care to both the town and approximately half the county.

Volunteers can be professional, can be held to professional standards, and can enjoy it. I would venture to say that, because they are held to standards, they take great pride in their work. Certainly, the members of my team were a proud, competent, and effective group. The key is to understand that, while you can hold them to standards, you must be mindful of their time. It is completely reasonable to say to a prospective volunteer, “If you want to work with us, you must meet these standards. We will train you.” It is perfectly reasonable for a prospective volunteer to say, “I am interested, but I do not have the time.” That is acceptable. Either you find a less time-consuming area for them to volunteer, or you part ways amicably until such time as they do have the time to dedicate to meeting your standards.

What you should not do is say, “You are a volunteer, therefore I will expect very little out of you.” While it may be the case that some volunteers have little to offer, on the whole, people rise or sink to the level of your standards, so set them where your organization needs them to be.

If your organization has volunteers already and you are setting a higher standard than before, say because your organization has grown and its standards have changed to meet that, be prepared to train your volunteers. Help them succeed. Understand that there will be a transition period. One thing that can help is to understand the scope of what you are asking them to do. Not only will this help you manage your expectations of your volunteers, it will likely provide you with additional information into just how your organization runs.

Further, developing a training program for your volunteers will help you reduce single-person dependencies. A stellar individual contributor is a wonderful asset to have, but if you are not careful, they can become a bottleneck for your organization, and you may start asking more of them than they can give. Do that for long enough, you run the risk of burning them out, and then, not only do you lose the high-performing resource, but you haven’t planned for its absence. Instead, take that stellar resource and reallocate some of their volunteer time towards training new folks in that space.

Finally, determining standards should help you figure out what you want your organization to accomplish, because those standards should be enabling your volunteers to contribute to those goals. There is no point in setting high standards that don’t contribute to those goals, so understand what you’re going for, then set standards that support it. And if you look around and nobody is there yet, then it also helps you figure out how you need to develop your team.

I won’t say it’s simple, or that it’s just a little work, but setting standards that support your organization’s needs, and helping your volunteers achieve those standards, is good for your organization and your volunteers.

Yes, they are volunteers, and yes, they can do it.

My sincere thanks to both the Southwest Virginia Mountain Rescue Group and Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad for the three years I spent with SWVaMRG, and, through them, BVRS. Some of my favorite memories occurred in my SWVaMRG uniform. If you’re living in the vicinity of Blacksburg, Virginia, consider giving them some of your time.