Nov 4, 2015
by Susan J. Ellis
Volunteers are in the unique position of what I call "insider/outsiders." Most employees approach their jobs from a specific professional perspective and may be too close to their work to see the whole forest for their species of trees. Volunteers, on the other hand, bring a wide range of educational and occupational backgrounds (including differences in age and other demographics). Collectively, they have a much broader point of view. They still think like members of the public but have also made a commitment to your organization, so you can count on their input as based on wanting the best for you and for those you serve. This ability makes them ideal "beta testers."
Our organizations are always moving forward on new projects, expanding services in different ways, possibly renovating or building new facilities, responding to additional legal requirements, and more. Even cutbacks bring change. The staff responsible for planning and implementing such activities are immersed in the process, as professionals. In other words, they are applying their expertise and training to the intellectual challenges of the new task. The problem is that the greatest impact of the changes is on your clients or consumers, not on the staff. By the time those service users give feedback, it may be too late (or expensive) to fix bad decisions. Doesn't it make more sense to pilot test options much earlier in the process?
The solution? Ask current volunteers for their opinions and ideas during the planning and then to beta test the experience as plans are implemented. They will be stand-ins or surrogates for real clients later on. Here are just a few situations in which this could be invaluable:
Whether you invite all volunteers to serve as such beta testers or select specific ones for each project based on their relevant perspectives, volunteers will love these requests! It's a change of pace with a purpose. It treats them as part of the team, with a different role than that of the paid staff. Yet they can provide feedback information that is extremely useful.
Further, if you engage volunteers during the early stages of something new, and act on valid suggestions they make, they will feel a sense of ownership and commitment to the activity or building. This will make them even more valuable as community ambassadors and as guides to your clients when they ultimately make use of the services.
Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, Inc., a training, consulting, and publishing firm that specializes in volunteerism. She founded the Philadelphia-based company in 1977 and since that time has assisted clients throughout the world (23 countries) to create or strengthen their volunteer corps. She has an international reputation as a passionate advocate for the power of volunteers and those who lead them. Visit www.energizeinc.com to learn more!