Workflow Management: How to Successfully Manage Volunteers and Projects

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Home repair nonprofits need to meet people where they are and tailor services to each family — services that will not only benefit them in the present but also the future. We are able to do this by developing processes and protocols. Sometimes it’s through our own trial-and-error; other times, it’s by learning from other organizations. 

My experience in the nonprofit field consists of service with Habitat for Humanity affiliates in Wisconsin, Illinois, North Carolina and South Carolina. Each affiliate I’ve served with has its own strengths, weaknesses, challenges, etc.

I’m a firm believer in people and processes. Having the right people in place and a standardized process to guide them puts most organizations on the right track. In my experience, people can have all the good will in their hearts, but that doesn’t matter if the entire team isn’t rowing the boat in the same direction. Establishing protocols is a good way to ensure a unified front, as it sets forth a clear directive that supersedes any one person’s motivations. 

For example, we often get requests from large groups wanting to volunteer with us. As an organization with only two full-time staff devoted to construction, it’s not always feasible for us to accommodate large group requests. In the past, we would waffle back and forth on these requests. We would weigh the benefits of the money coming in versus the work we had available versus the staffing and logistics that would be needed to provide a memorable volunteer experience. 

Eventually, we established a new rule that large group requests must be made 90 days in advance of the proposed project date. This eliminated the burden of preparing large-scale volunteer events last minute. 

While enacting specific programmatic processes and protocols ameliorates day-to-day problems, I’ve also seen the importance of developing a clear mission with supporting goals.

Most nonprofits’ success is dependent on many other outside factors, but there is trouble when a nonprofit becomes a two-pound mouse being dragged around by an 800-pound gorilla. Nonprofit organizations do need to develop relationships with other entities, but an organization loses all sense of purpose when it exists solely to meet the needs of other groups (volunteers, funders, community partners, etc.). The people and organizations that volunteer with a home repair nonprofit should align with its mission statement. 

Thus far, I’ve discussed the importance of developing and adhering to protocols/processes and mission statements. I’m going to conclude with a comparison of two ways to structure a home repair program, as this is a process I’m currently working through. 

In option one, applications are only accepted for a brief window each year. Once these applications are received and vetted by the appropriate staff, my role as home repair program manager is to assess the properties. From the triages, I develop scopes for all the projects. This scenario allows the Development Department a longer timetable to secure funding and volunteer groups for the projects. However, it does present some issues for project planning and the applicant. While some projects are completed soon after they’re assessed, others may not be started for 6-9 months. This creates some inefficiencies from a planning standpoint as I’ve often had to make multiple site visits to reacquaint myself with projects. It also causes some families to have to wait a very long time to receive needed home repairs. During the wait, further issues can arise with the property or the family which require additional evaluation. This option also artificially decreases our target audience of families we can serve, as only those who apply within the given timeframe that have critical needs will be accepted. 

Option two entails having a rolling application cycle that is always open. In this process, the goal is to find an optimal time period that the home repair organization feels it can fully cycle through an applicant, from receiving an application to the final rendering of services. Many variables can come into play such as staffing restrictions, homeowner payment, waiting for volunteers/funding, etc. One Habitat affiliate I worked at managed its repairs with a 120-day look-ahead schedule. Granted, this affiliate had the best combination of staffing, processes, available funding and volunteers that I’ve ever worked with. By using a rolling application cycle, we were able to meet families’ needs better by having a more accessible application and a condensed schedule. While this approach tends to favor applicants and the construction/project management staff, it doesn’t always leave enough time for relationship building between staff and the applicant. It also promotes very strict timetables, as all steps of the repair process are done in cycles, from assessments to scope development to bid walks to project preparation to project completion. If any of these steps require additional time, everything that follows is delayed as well. As such, this approach seems to work best when adequate staffing is in place. 

To close, here’s a quote from boxing legend Mike Tyson that sums up the challenges we face on a daily basis: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Our best-laid plans will be foiled and drive us crazy; it’s how we respond and pick ourselves up off the mat that truly defines us. 

Jordan Lyndaker is the Critical Home Repair Site Supervisor with Habitat For Humanity Of York County in Rock Hill, South Carolina. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with family & friends, traveling, volunteering, sports, music and cooking. His goal is to volunteer with Habitat affiliates in all 50 states; he's 20% of the way there.
 

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