Many face volunteer challenges

The business of nonprofits

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GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Though many Clay County residents volunteer in the community, some nonprofit organizations face challenges in recruiting, training and retaining volunteers.

Some charity officials say it’s best that potential volunteers set realistic expectations so they know what type of work they will be doing in their volunteer role.

“Volunteers often have a romanticized idea of volunteering and come in not really knowing what they’re getting into,” said Susan Bleeker, volunteer coordinator at Way Free Medical Clinic in Green Cove Springs.

Bleeker recruits volunteers to work the front desk because all other clinic volunteers are medical professionals. She said front desk volunteers are in a high-stress environment that involves a computer system the elderly often find difficult to learn. Because front desk volunteers only work four hours a week, Bleeker said training becomes difficult, so volunteers often move on. However, Bleeker is not alone.

“People come to orientation and they’re all gung-ho – then, they never come back,” said Andrea Cassman, who heads up Friends of Clay County Animals, the volunteer arm of Clay County Animal Care and Control. “They’re intimidated by the idea of getting dogs they don’t know out of the cage. If you’re walking by and a dog is bouncing off the walls, you’ll probably keep walking, but that dog is just a love bucket who wants out of the cage.”

She said the shelter has a core group of volunteers it counts on, but the location of the shelter presents most of Cassman’s challenge because the drive consumes time busy people don’t have.

“If a person lived within a driving distance of the shelter, it would be easy to go there and walk a dog for a few minutes, but with it being so far away from everyone, you have to plan and make a day of it in order to volunteer there,” Cassman said.

Bleeker said the medical clinic, like many organizations in Clay County, has a mix of younger volunteers seeking community service hours or performing an internship, as well as older residents who are retired and are looking to give back. There are different sets of challenges with the two demographics – while some older volunteers struggle to learn the computer, younger ones pick it up much more easily, but don’t stay as long as older volunteers who make it through the learning curve.

“We call it a controlled chaos because it can get pretty crazy between the phone ringing, people coming in and others having questions to answer. You have to juggle a lot of balls in the air and you have to triple-task, Bleeker said.

“These are things the younger people do better, but they’re here to strengthen their resumes. I understand that, but with the time it takes to get them trained – by the time we train them, they leave.”

Both said their organizations always need more volunteers, but would prefer more constancy than a revolving door. Though many volunteers only stay for brief stints, at least one organization has a high retention rate because its volunteers have already gone through the initial phase and in a rather personal way.

“Most of the volunteers who come to us want to give back after we’ve been involved with someone in their family,” said Dan Batty, volunteer services manager for Community Hospice. “We have an 80 percent retention rate and average 140 volunteers across the five counties we serve.”

He said most of the time, when a volunteer leaves Community Hospice, it’s because they’re relocating or are undergoing their own medical issues.

“We have a lady at a front desk who is 92-years-old and we have an 88-year-old World War II veteran who volunteers. We have a lot of volunteers in their 60s, 70s and 80s, but we also have younger volunteers who work around their work schedules,” Batty said.

Batty thinks one of the reasons volunteers may move on from an organization is they’re in a process of finding their niche. He said those who are committed to volunteering will find the right place for them and stay.

In many nonprofits, the application and screening process can turn people away with different levels of background checks, references and interviews. Batty said it takes 45-60 days to go through it at the hospice, except for volunteering at one of the group’s thrift shops.

He also said there is a need to get the message out, so Clay County residents know what organizations are present in the community and what they do. Often, prospective volunteers reach out because they believe in the organization’s mission and they stay for the same reason – if the reality check doesn’t deflate their idealism.

Cassman said the best way for prospective volunteers to investigate is to come in and shadow a volunteer to learn about the duties of the position. That way, the person can get individualized attention they can’t get at a large event such as a group orientation. Bleeker concurs with Cassman and believes this is the best way to integrate newcomers in comfortably.

“I like them to come in and shadow for a couple hours to check it out and see if it’s going to be a good fit,” Bleeker said. “Clay County residents are great, giving people but they need to know what they’re getting into.”

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