VLAs: Managing the Risks

Once you have familiarized yourself with the benefits of the VLA model and assessed its feasibility for your organization, you will want to mitigate the risks of this particular staffing model by taking certain steps.

For every new volunteer that starts with your team, you will need to invest a significant amount of time training her, managing her, and helping her grow professionally. Like everyone else, a new volunteer will go through a transition in the first few weeks of her work where she learns through mistakes, through consulting colleagues on daily tasks, and by observing their peers.

With new cohorts of volunteers starting with your team every 6 months, the key to the success of your program is in managing these transitions effectively. The following pages outline the steps you might take to ensure an effective transition.

Step 1: Recruitment

You should consider recruiting actively and often. Do not find yourself with a reduced workforce due to a lack of planning or foresight. A good way to avoid this is to prepare for the coming year using the annual volunteer planning chart, available for can download below.

Also consider partnering with local and foreign universities to set up fellowships or awards programs. These will provide volunteers with a strong incentive to apply for a volunteer program that is recognized and valued by their own educational institution.

For detailed information on the recruitment process, please refer to the Human Resources Tools and Recruitment Manual located in the Human Resources Management section. 

Step 2: Send new hires a pre-arrival packet

A pre-arrival packet allows incoming volunteers to learn about what they can expect working with your organization in advance. 

This is particularly important for volunteers from abroad, since they will likely have questions about the logistics of moving. A pre-arrival packet will hopefully answer most of your new volunteer’s questions and mitigate lengthy follow-up emails. The readings should also clarify what kind of support a volunteer might expect to receive from your organization. You can find a sample/template pre-arrival packet in the below.

Documents that new arrivals will need to sign such as confidentiality agreements, memos of understanding, proof of insurance, etc., should also be sent with the pre-arrival document. Examples of these documents can also be found in step 6 of recruitment manual under operation tools.

Step 3: Give the VLA an ‘office basics’ manual and conduct a welcome tour

If you have little time to spare fielding volunteer questions, you probably don’t want them to be wasted on questions such as “where do we keep our stamps?” or “how do I schedule a new client appointment?” But you want to make sure they have answers for them. For simpler tasks like these, having an “office basics” manual for your volunteers can come in handy.   

The “office basics” manual may include: 

  • An organizational chart
  • Lists of volunteer rights and responsibilities
  • Record-keeping and scheduling instructions
  • Descriptions of policies and standards that volunteers must follow, etc
  • A checklist of things volunteers must complete within the first week (i.e. fill out the staff information form, sign up for monthly tidying up duties, label her mailbox, photocopy and file her insurance information, etc.)

Step 4: Plan your training week carefully

If you have two or three cohorts of VLAs starting every year, you want to make sure that you schedule your training weeks carefully and well in advance, so new volunteers can plan around these start dates. This way, volunteers can begin in groups and support each other through the transition. Our experience has showed us that it is better to have volunteers match your timeline and not vice versa.

You can also use the annual volunteer planning document provided in step 1 to manage training dates.

The first week of training is the most important determinant of a volunteer’s success, and your best opportunity to highlight key notes and processes, since this is when they are most receptive.

We strongly advise against accepting volunteers during busy periods when you cannot commit the time and energy to train them adequately, as this may harm your team in the long-run.

Step 5: Set up a shadowing system

When planning start dates or training weeks, you will want them to coincide with the last few weeks of outgoing VLAs’ time with your organization. In this way, the experienced VLAs can serve as mentors and the new hires can shadow them and eventually take over the outgoing cohort’s caseload.

Step 6: Prevent knowledge loss

This is the biggest fear of someone managing volunteers – they take a few weeks to ease into the job, learn how to do it well after you have invest time and energy into their training, and then they leave without passing along the information to others.

Since they will be working directly with refugee clients, you will also want to ensure that you capture their knowledge of the work. 

Here are three ways in which you can manage your volunteers’ knowledge:

  • Mid-term interviews – These serve a number of objectives, including capturing the knowledge the volunteer has produced. 
  • Exit checklists – Checklists allow your volunteer to manage their last weeks of working with you easily. These ensure that all their clients’ files are correctly archived or handed over, that correspondence or outstanding issues are resolved and that they have had specific meetings or notes written for more complicated client cases.
  • Exit interviews – Like a mid-term interview, this last meeting with outgoing VLAs provides an excellent opportunity for the organization to receive honest feedback about case management, the way the organization is pursuing its mission, or any other areas of improvement for you or your organization.