Using Volunteers as Consultants

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Christine Beatty

Phase:  

Building

“Our volunteers are essential.”

Organization/Project:

Madison Senior Center
Madison, Wisconsin
Project and Team Consultant Project

Summary:

The Madison Senior Center started a team leader program in 1997 for volunteers interested in taking on new kinds of responsibilities. A decade later, a grant from the National Council on Aging helped the senior center to be even more specific in its approach by creating two new avenues for volunteering—self-directed teams of Project Consultants and individual Senior Consultants. Both tapped volunteers with public relations, communications, organizational and management skills.

After two years, the senior center had more than 20 team leaders and eight project consultants. The volunteer teams had presented a comparative report on senior centers’ accomplishments and barriers to local policymakers, produced a marketing presentation and video for the senior center and much more.

The senior center also had created numerous new volunteer roles, such as co-producer for its monthly cable TV program, coordinator for the annual “Full Speed Ahead After 50” conference, and facilitator for the senior center’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) group.

“Our small staff can be maxed out,” said Director Christine Beatty. “Volunteers are a way for us to do programs we’d have to turn down otherwise.”

Challenges:

The senior center needed advice and support with public relations and marketing, on senior program development and expansion and with senior center-sponsored community volunteer projects.

Solutions:

In the Project Consultant model, two self-directed teams of senior adult volunteers focused on public relations/marketing and on senior program development/expansion for the Madison Senior Center.

Individual Senior Consultants staff selected senior center-sponsored community volunteer projects, which focus on the education of youth, elimination of illiteracy, support of active aging, and community safety initiatives.

All volunteers were integrated into appropriate Board of Directors committees. They received staff and financial support and, in some cases, an annual stipend.

As a result of the programs, volunteers began leading in these roles:

  • Speaker’s bureau coordinator.
  • Coordinator/activity leader for an intergenerational program with the day care center.
  • Co-producer for the senior center’s monthly cable TV program.
  • Curator for a juried county-wide art show.
  • Coordinator/event planner for an annual conference, Full Speed Ahead After 50.
  • Facilitator for the senior center’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) group.

Self-directed teams produced these deliverables:

  • A marketing presentation and video for the senior center.
  • Alternative ways to honor volunteers: Several events throughout the year instead of an annual luncheon, plus rewards such as gas cards, theater tickets and discounted events.
  • Research of other senior centers’ accomplishments and barriers and a comparative report presented to county and city policymakers.
  • Healthy snacks, nutrition lessons and exercise sessions for young schoolchildren; inspiration for volunteers as role models to walk the walk.

Lessons Learned:

  • Watch your language. Do focus groups to test the language used in promotions for the volunteer program to ensure it appeals to the volunteers you’re trying to reach.
  • Keep self-directed teams connected to the organization. Invite them to attend staff meetings, to report to the board, to meet with project directors, etc.
  • Interview volunteers to ensure they have the skills, commitment and passion needed to do certain tasks.
  • Educate staff, Board and committee members, and existing volunteers about the new leadership volunteers and their roles and responsibilities.
  • Recognize that this is a journey; it doesn’t happen overnight.
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