The Volunteer As Client

By LIFT on May 23, 2012

Categories: Our Work


Apr 11th, 2012 | By Sam Quinney | Category: Policy in Practice, Urban Affairs

Ben Reuler is the Executive Director of LIFT Chicago and a graduate of The University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. LIFT is a nonprofit organization with centers in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. LIFT works with low-income individuals and families to find jobs, secure stable housing, and connect with reliable social services. Volunteers are the key actors in LIFT’s approach to ending urban poverty.

Given the mission and programs offered by LIFT, how does the organization select and train its volunteers? How does this process directly relate to your program model?

LIFT actually has volunteers apply for volunteer positions and then complete an interview. It is important that both parties feel the fit is good. LIFT primarily looks for empathy and a demonstrated commitment to addressing social justice issues when selecting volunteers. We also believe strongly that diversity in all dimensions of the organization supports and bolsters the innovative thinking essential to LIFT’s success. As such, we cast a wide net in our recruitment.

College students have traditionally been underutilized in the social service sector despite their ability and eagerness to donate vast amounts of time, passion, and dedication to the cause. The under utilization of the college student population in direct client service has become even more apparent in the wake of the economic crisis as millions of Americans fall into poverty and professional social workers and case managers become increasingly overloaded with clients. Today, LIFT Chicago trains an annual corps of over 175 student volunteers.

Within a year, LIFT Chicago volunteer advocates participate in over 50 hours of advanced client service trainings. The New Volunteer Training (NVT) is a two-day training that focuses heavily on direct service. In the weeks immediately following the initial NVT, student volunteers participate in a thorough two week local orientation at their site of service called In-Office Training, which includes meeting key community partners, training on local office infrastructure, learning about essential resources for clients, reviewing local area data on poverty, and most importantly, shadowing client meetings. Ongoing Trainings (OTs) occur every two weeks, and typically happen in the evening on LIFT’s partner campuses to make them easy and accessible for college students.

Are there aspects of LIFT’s model that you think could be successfully adopted by other community development organizations? What ratio of staff to volunteers would you recommend?

The ratio will differ from one organization to another. The important thing is that the host organization has the capacity to effectively manage and engage volunteers. Expectations need to be clear on all ends. Sometimes I think well-intended organizations make the mistake of asking, “What task would be fun/interesting for a prospective volunteer?”

The questions should be, “What are the needs of the organization? What would best leverage us to fulfill our mission more effectively? Where are the gaps?” By starting with these questions, volunteers are truly helping the organization in a meaningful way; in the end, that is what I believe is most important to volunteers—that their service is actually really benefiting the organization they are serving.

A strong culture among volunteers seems to be essential to LIFT’s model, how do you build and maintain that culture? Has LIFT’s approach to building culture changed over time?

A strong volunteer culture has been the backbone of LIFT since it was founded by college students over a decade ago. Over the years we have learned that adding in layers of support, accountability and direction has allowed volunteers to thrive even more.

We treat volunteers like clients—offering transformative service opportunities for volunteers is part of LIFT’s theory of change and we are intentional about that. We hire outstanding “people-person” Site Coordinators who work effectively with volunteers. We email volunteers when we are notified of a “client success.” We set clear and high expectations so volunteers feel challenged and accountable; and we focus on creating a friendly, loose office environment where individuality is valued and celebrated.

What is the strongest motivator for volunteers to join and continue with LIFT?

The strongest motivator to join is interest in serving and connecting with the surrounding community. The strongest motivator to continue is seeing client success and feeling a part of bettering people’s lives. Additionally, ongoing professional development and leadership opportunities support high retention.

As Executive Director, does your approach to managing, supporting, and motivating volunteers differ from your approach with paid employees?

The approach is remarkably similar. We expect a lot from LIFT volunteers, hold them accountable and encourage professional growth. As such, volunteers feel valued and accountable. If a volunteer is repeatedly late to his/her shift and keeping clients waiting, and perhaps doesn’t attend the mandatory ongoing trainings, then we talk with that volunteer about the implications in a similar way we would address poor performance with staff members. Respectfully, in a timely manner, and in a way that places high quality client service as the ultimate priority.

When I interview Site Coordinators for the job one of the questions I ask is, “Do you ever think it might be appropriate to ask a volunteer to suspend their volunteer engagement with LIFT?” I’m always curious to see what candidates say. Some have the mindset of, “Well, they’re volunteers so any little bit helps.”

I disagree. If someone is going to commit to coming in to volunteer in a resource center and be available for people facing very serious and immediate needs, then the commitment needs to be there. Otherwise, what message are we sending to other volunteers and clients who are fully committed? And on the other side, we at LIFT owe it to our volunteers to be crystal clear up front about volunteer expectations and time commitment so there are no surprises. LIFT has found this structure and expectation-setting to foster a healthy and effective volunteer environment.