There are numerous resources on the web that cover traditional ways of looking at volunteer management. However, there is very little written about how one might create a job description for a volunteer at an Agile non-profit organization. Here’s a little comparison of the two perspectives:

The traditional human resource approach puts volunteer job descriptions in the context of the organization’s strategic plan. Proponents essentially say:

  1. develop a strategic plan
  2. decide and document the tasks needed to carry out the plan
  3. decide if you need volunteers to do those tasks given your constraints
  4. create a job description of those tasks
  5. recruit the volunteer to fit the job description
  6. train the volunteer so they’re clear on your expectations
  7. monitor to see if the volunteer is meeting your expectations

The traditional human resource approach says everyone should have a job description that lays out the organization’s expectations and the person’s specific duties. The underlying idea is that people are more likely to give their time when they know what they will be doing. People also want assurance that their work is important and contributes to the goals of the organization. Without this comfort and confidence, they will be unsatisfied with the volunteer opportunity and will do a poor job, leave the organization, or worse, do some damage to the organization’s reputation.

An Agile Approach

Thanks to OpenAgile, Agile is not just for software development anymore, and many of the practices seem to be a strong fit for maximizing resources at a non-profit organization, especially when it comes to managing volunteers. Some of the principles underlying an Agile approach are to avoid excessive bureaucracy, long-term planning, and static role definitions. Proponents of Agile think of job descriptions as guidelines rather than requirements. An Agile process to managing volunteers could look something like this:

  1. the organization starts with a goal
  2. begin working toward the goal with anyone who is committed to doing the work (the “team”)
  3. as the team works through successive iterations (cycles of action, reflection, learning, and planning), the team learns what they need to be more efficient and effective
  4. if the team learns that they need specific skills, the team makes obtaining those skills a priority and they learn the skill themselves or seek someone with those skills to contribute to the work
  5. if a volunteer is interested in contributing to the work, the team can decide if the skills that person offers matches what the team needs to do their work
  6. welcome the skills and interests of the new team member and continue working towards the goal

Agile encourages organizations to use cross-functional teams composed of people who are committed to doing the work and willing to experiment by trying and learning. In an Agile environment, the team focuses on the goal, not their personal job descriptions. Team members are free to complete any task they want. For example, imagine a task for doing some work on a website. I may not have experience to complete the task easily, but if I’m free to try. It’s possible that I’ll learn something new that will make it easier to complete the task the next time. As they work, volunteers develop competencies and skills that complement those of the other members of the team.

Template for creating a job description for an Agile volunteer:

Position: Team Member

Purpose: To provide value to the stakeholders of the organization (ex. staff, community members, constituents, frontline workers)

Primary Duty: To aggressively learn and experiment to improve the ways the organization does work. This applies to all aspects of our work, including: stakeholder relationships, organizational effectiveness, process and tool efficiency, skill and capacity building, and underlying conceptual framework.

Secondary Duties:
To work jointly with all team members to help achieve the organization’s goals
To engage with the team members to create and commit to a Cycle Plan
To use your knowledge, interests, and skills to help the team complete the work in the Cycle Plan
To participate in regularly scheduled progress meetings with the team
To help the team to keep its commitments to the organization and its stakeholders
To make sure that the work done holds to the organization’s standards

Interesting Resources for Further Reading:

Agile:

OpenAgile – The OpenAgile Primer

Scott Ambler, Agile Modeling – Generalizing Specialists: Improving Your IT Career Skills

Mishkin Berteig, AgileAdvice – The Wisdom of Teams and”generalizing specialists”

Susan M. Heathfield, About.com Guide – Are You Ready for an Agile Future? An Agile Organization Embraces Change

Traditional:

Community Services Council Newfoundland and Labrador – Volunteer Management Resources

Joanne Fritz, About.com Guide – Before You Recruit Volunteers

Mary V. Merrill, World Volunteer Web – Developing volunteer job descriptions

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