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What is providing supervision for staff and volunteers?
Why should you supervise staff and volunteers?
When should you provide supervision?
How do you supervise staff and volunteers?
Pilar, who had once been a homeless teenager, was a counselor for homeless children. She was trying to understand why she couldn’t seem to connect with one particular teen-age girl, a girl who seemed a lot like Pilar herself had been at that age. She brought up the issue in her biweekly meeting with her supervisor. They discussed the girl, her own feelings about the relationship, what she had tried so far. The supervisor suggested some techniques for using body language and other non-verbal signals to tell the girl that Pilar cared about her needs and was on her side. They also talked about Pilar’s own experiences, and about how her work with this girl might be bringing up things that were difficult for Pilar to deal with At the next meeting, Pilar told her supervisor that she had tried several of the techniques they had discussed, and that she had also begun to better understand how her own feelings played into her counseling. All in all, she felt things had improved, and would continue to.
Alejandro had been at the housing office for nearly a year, but he was still struggling to learn his job. He couldn’t seem to keep paperwork straight, and he had, as a result, made life difficult for a number of people trying to find affordable housing whose lives were difficult enough already. Furthermore, rather than apologizing when he made mistakes, he treated clients as if his errors were their fault. He and his supervisor had talked about the situation once before, and now the supervisor called him in again. “Your work has been unsatisfactory, and this is the second time I’ve had to tell you so,” the supervisor said. “If it continues this way, you could lose your job.” Before Alejandro could protest, the supervisor continued, “Let’s look at what you’re having problems with. We should be able to come up with some ways that you can improve your performance and do your job well, and I’ll try to help however I can. But we’ve already had this conversation twice; if we have it again, that will probably be the last time.”
Both of these scenarios are examples of supervision. In this section, we’ll discuss what supervision means, and how to go developing good supervision for staff and volunteers.
What is providing supervision for staff and volunteers?
When you hear the word “supervision,” you may picture a large, mean person looking over your shoulder trying to find fault with everything you do. There may be some supervisors who fit that description, but, in health and community service organizations, supervision is usually the opposite. It’s helpful, and often welcomed by supervisers as a source of advice, information, and emotional support for work that can be demanding and difficult. At the same time, supervisors are responsible for making sure that the people they supervise are doing a good job – that they’re where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there, and that the work they do is of high quality.
There are really two kinds of supervision, often both practiced by the same person, sometimes at the same time. One puts the supervisor in a teacher/counselor/mentor role, providing helpful and constructive feedback, developing a good relationship with the supervisee, and working with him to continually improve his understanding of and competence in his job. The other casts the supervisor in her role in the organizational chart, as an administrator responsible for making sure that those in her department do their jobs. The two are not necessarily contradictory, but they do occasionally place supervisors in an uncomfortable position, as the case of Alejandro above illustrates.
The duties of a supervisor may include training new workers, supporting and mentoring supervisees, providing professional development, assigning and creating projects, making sure plans are being carried out effectively, providing support, assisting with projects or activities, and identifying and addressing unsatisfactory performance. All of these duties have the same goal: to help those supervised do the best job they can, and continue to learn and improve.
Each of the paid staff members in your organization probably has (and should have) a job description laying out her responsibilities. Many volunteer programs also provide job descriptions for volunteers, but staff supervision and volunteer supervision are different. Staff members are expected, perhaps after some initial training, to be professionals who know their jobs and can function independently. They understand the workings of the organization, know the field, and often are expected to make complex decisions about their actions without consulting with a supervisor.
Volunteers, on the other hand, are unpaid, and have chosen to help the organization for their own reasons – usually because they believe in what it’s doing, and want to have a role in it in some way. They are generally not professionals in the field, don’t necessarily know the workings of the organization (they may spend as little as an hour or two a week on their volunteer assignments), and may need a lot of ongoing guidance from a supervisor in order to perform well. A supervisor of volunteers may also have to pay more attention to logistics – scheduling, making sure everyone knows about meetings or changes, checking with people to ensure they fulfill their commitments, etc. – because volunteers aren’t tied to the organizational schedule in the same way employees are.
Both staff members and volunteers should meet regularly with their supervisor. Depending on the position and the size and resources of the organization, these supervision meetings may always be individual, or may often be in a group. In the latter case, the group can often be helpful in identifying and working out problems or making suggestions about resolving difficult situations. Whatever the situation, supervisors should have a chance to meet with supervisees individually at least a few times a year to review performance, call attention to problem areas, and provide support or – where necessary – explain and try to help improve unsatisfactory work.
Here’s where supervision becomes difficult. The supervisor should be an important source of comfort and help to anyone she supervises. At the same time, it usually falls to her to be the bearer of bad news when a supervisee’s job performance is, or has become, unsatisfactory. The supervisor is expected to – and should – provide as much support as possible in that situation, helping the staff member or volunteer to bring his efforts in line with the standards of the organization. Neither the supervisor nor her supervisee can ignore the fact, however, that she may be the person who decides that – despite repeated warnings and efforts to correct the problem – performance has simply become or continued to be unacceptable, and the employee or staff member must be asked to leave.
As must be obvious by now, supervision – which is considered an afterthought in many organizations – is both an important and a difficult job, one that requires a lot of thought and effort. That’s perhaps the most important point of this section: don’t take supervision for granted. It can be the difference between an organization that functions smoothly and one that’s continually in crisis.
Why should you supervise staff and volunteers?
Good supervision benefits both the individuals supervised and the organization:
- Supervision geared toward helping staff members and volunteers gain competency makes them feel supported and valued, and makes the organization more competent and effective as well.
- Supervision can explain the requirements and responsibilities of staff members’ and volunteers’ positions, the methods they’re expected to use, and the organizational norms and culture, so that expectations are clear from the beginning. This can prevent problems later, or if they arise, provide a standard against which performance, behavior, and relationships can be measured.
- Poor performance by staff or volunteers reflects poorly in the community and with fundraisers. Proper supervision can not only catch poor performance, but prevent it, by identifying areas of concern and working on them with staff and volunteers.
- Adequate supervision can help to recognize and address potential problems, such as staff burnout, before they become actual problems.
- Good supervision keeps staff and volunteers with the organization.. It makes them feel that someone cares whether or not they do a good job, and that there’s a solid structure supporting them if they run into problems. These are factors that keep people happy with their jobs, and encourage them to stay.
- Good supervision models the type of relationship that should exist throughout the organization. Supervisors who understand their job treat all employees and volunteers with respect, focus on the professional and personal needs and development of those they supervise, and inspire enthusiasm for the work and loyalty to the organization’s vision and mission.
- Supervision, coupled with constructive feedback, can result in better employees who feel they are a more fully integrated part of the group. Again, the end result of this is a stronger, more effective organization.
When should you provide supervision?
Supervision for new staff members and volunteers should begin as soon as they join the organization, and should continue on a regular basis throughout their stay. Regular supervision provides the opportunity for staff and volunteers to work out problems, to get to know the organization well, and to establish a good and productive relationship with their supervisor. By the same token, it allows the supervisor to get a clear picture of supervisees’ strengths and needs, to let them know how they’re doing, to help them work on areas where they’re not as strong, and to praise them for what they do well.
In situations where supervision is largely supportive and professional – counseling and psychotherapy, health, etc. – the ideal is that staff members, should meet with supervisors, either in a group or individually, once a week, or once every other week. (The staffs of some medical facilities, particularly teaching hospitals, may conduct a short group supervision session every day.) With volunteers in somewhat similar positions – school or adult literacy tutors, peer counselors, hotline staffers – the same might be true. For staff members and volunteers whose work may not be directly with participants, but whose supervision is geared more toward making sure they understand and can do their jobs, sessions may be less frequent – monthly or quarterly. Frequency may also depend on the number of staff or volunteers a supervisor is responsible for, the flexibility of people’s schedules, and the resources of the organization.
How do you supervise staff and volunteers?
Although staff and volunteers both need support, the differences in their jobs, as we’ve discussed, imply differences in the ways and the frequency with which they’re supervised. In order to ensure good supervision, it’s important to identify the right people to provide it and then train them, so that they have a clear understanding of what supervision is, the aspects of it that they should attend to, and the interpersonal skills they’ll need to practice in order to do it well.
Who should supervise staff members and volunteers?
In general, staff members should be supervised by whoever is ultimately responsible for the work they do. If your organization is large enough to have a number of departments, for instance, then the people in each department may be supervised by the head of that department, or the members of each team within the department may be supervised by that team’s leader. In smaller organizations, the director may supervise everyone else, or may share supervision duties with (or delegate them to) an assistant director and/or one or more program directors.
Having the person in charge be the supervisor isn’t always the best plan, however. Remember, we explained earlier that there are two kinds of supervision. The teacher/counselor/mentor version, which is really about professional development, requires a supervisor who has direct and successful experience in the field. Where staff members have responsibilities that involve specific professional skills – counseling or psychotherapy, teaching, medicine, wellness promotion, occupational therapy, etc. – a supervisor with knowledge of the field can help them examine what they’re doing, spot and deal with areas of potential concern, and suggest alternatives based on experience. (You wouldn’t, for instance, want a hospital administrator with a degree in business supervising the clinical practice of doctors. )
If your organization promotes people from within, or specifically hires administrators and managers with experience in the field, this may not be an issue for you. If not, you’ll have to decide how to provide good professional supervision. One possibility, if administrators don’t have field experience, is peer supervision, usually in a group. In this circumstance, there’s no question of one person or another being in charge. Group members might rotate facilitating meetings, or might appoint one person to facilitate because she’s particularly good at it.
For most people who exercise it, supervision is only one aspect of their jobs. It’s an important enough aspect, however, that they should receive both initial and ongoing training in it. In many fields where supervision duties are assumed – particularly counseling and clinical psychology – there are graduate courses in supervision that virtually all practitioners are expected to have taken.
What should supervision training cover?
Some topics that might be included in a supervision training:
- How to involve all volunteers and staff members effectively
- How to enhance the value of volunteers to a program and to the paid employees
- How to include all volunteers and staff members in program planning and decision making
- How to evaluate performance
- How to provide performance feedback to volunteers and staff
- How to hold volunteers and staff members accountable for job performance
- How to help workers avoid burnout
- How to create a climate in which volunteers and staff will be most productive
- How to build teams that include both volunteers and paid employees
- How to minimize tension between paid staff and volunteers
- The difference between formative (helping the supervisee to improve and develop professionally through discussion, advice, and occasional counseling) and summative (judging employee performance) supervision. This might include some discussion – and perhaps role play – about what’s appropriate when, and how to combine the two if both are part of the supervisory role in the organization.
The standard view of the supervisory relationship, as we’ve mentioned, is often negative. Supervisors are seen as overseeing and criticizing – perhaps in a hostile manner – the work of those they supervise. The reality is that effective supervision is a partnership. The supervisor provides professional and emotional support, information, advice, and a connection to the larger organization (passing on concerns, helping to obtain supplies and equipment, etc.), and supervisor and supervisee work on and solve problems together. For health and community service organizations, this type of supervision makes sense not only practically, but philosophically. The supportive, partnership supervisory relationship reflects the democratic and humanistic ideals of most organizations of this type, and models and promotes the sort of relationship that staff and volunteers should develop with one another and with program participants.
At the same time, supervisors in most organizations have responsibilities that go beyond support and advice. They’re responsible for making sure their supervisees have the knowledge, materials, space, etc. they need to do a good job, and they’re responsible as well for making sure work gets done well and on time. That’s the practical side of supervision, and it can determine whether or not the organization reaches its goals. What does good practical supervision consist of?
Welcome new staff or volunteers and distribute basic information
As soon as someone makes the commitment to work for your organization, whether as a staff member or volunteer, she should should receive a job description that clearly delineates her responsibilities, her place in the organizational chart, whom she will be supervised by and whom she will supervise, etc. New staff members might be sent or given a card or note signed by all staff welcoming them to the organization; volunteers might get a similar card thanking them for joining the organization.
Meet with new supervisees as soon as possible
Supervisors should meet with a new staff member on his first day on the job, if possible – both to get acquainted and to get staff member’s most pressing questions answered. Part of the supervisor’s responsibility here might be to take him around and introduce him to other staff members, to show him the site’s facilities and procedures, and to make sure he has what he needs to start work. One of the most important functions of this meeting is to give the new staff member an “anchor” – a person he feels he knows and can go to for help or information in those first few nervous days on a new job.
First days for new volunteers might be different, since they’re likely to be supervised by whatever professional or staff member they’re working with, instead of, or in addition to, a volunteer coordinator. A new volunteer’s initial meeting is more likely to be with the supervising staff member, to get acquainted and to go over what the volunteer will actually do.
Orient new supervisees
People new to the organization should receive an orientation, either individually or in a group. Because of the ways they’re recruited, it’s probably more likely that a new staff orientation will be individual (perhaps part of the initial meeting with the supervisor) and a new volunteer orientation will be in a group. Orientation should include:
- The background of the organization
- Projects the organization is currently involved in
- A brief introduction to other staff and volunteers, and their general responsibilities
- Location of supplies, equipment, and facilities
- Organizational culture – whether people tend to eat lunch together, for instance, how staff and volunteers interact with one another and with participants, how serious work time is expected to be, how people dress for work, etc.
- What kinds of decisions staff and volunteers are expected to make for themselves and what they should discuss first with supervisors
Train staff and volunteers
There should be both initial and ongoing training for staff and volunteers. Good training makes both staff and volunteers more confident and more competent, and helps keep the organization moving forward. Training should cover such areas as:
- Methods or techniques that the organization uses in its work
- General information about the field – essential theory, new discoveries, current work, etc. This might include visits to or from people from other organizations engaged in similar efforts.
- Information about the population or issue the organization is concerned with
- Interpersonal skills – communication, conflict resolution, problem solving, cultural sensitivity, etc.
Once new staff and volunteers have received their initial orientation and training, a large part of their supervisor’s job is to remain aware of what they’re engaged in, whether they’re having difficulties with it, whether they need more training in particular areas, and whether they’re actually doing what their job descriptions and the norms of the organization demand. A staff member may be struggling with one aspect of a particular project, or have a hard time relating to a particular participant. A volunteer may do a great job when she’s there, but may not always show up when she’s scheduled. These are practical supervisory concerns, and supervisors have to keep on top of them and intervene when necessary to make sure that the staff member or volunteer keeps doing his job.
You can monitor supervisees in a number of ways:
- Keep a file for every staff member or volunteer which includes:
- Progress on her assigned projects, tasks, or duties
- A job description (the staff member or volunteer should also have a copy)
- A record of volunteer hours
- Any written performance evaluations
- Records of conversations about the staff member’s or volunteer’s performance
- Records of any grievances filed by the volunteer or staff member
- Records or copies of any awards, commendations, letters of praise, etc., received by the staff member or volunteer, or by the organization on behalf of work that staff member or volunteer has done.
- Records of individual professional development – courses, continuing education units, conferences, etc. – by the staff member or volunteer.
- Copies of any contracts between the supervisee and the organization.
Performance evaluations should be conducted once or twice a year. They are important for a number of reasons. Good ones are formative, helping the staff member or volunteer to do the best job he can. They provide a record of the supervisee’s progress in his job – his professional development, what he’s learned, and what he does particularly well. They let him know that the organization cares about the job he’s doing, and that it’s important. On the other hand, if a staff member’s work is unsatisfactory, they provide a basis for firing him.
In the U.S., at least, it’s fairly difficult to fire someone unless you have good cause. If that cause is well documented – the nature of the problem, the number of warnings, the number and nature of attempts to correct the problem, etc. – then there’s much less threat of a lawsuit or other action by the employee.
- Supervisors should at least occasionally observe supervisees’ work, if that’s appropriate.
It generally isn’t appropriate for a supervisor to observe a counseling or therapy session, for instance, unless the supervisee is new to the field and still training. Even then, most supervision depends on audiotape, and informed participant permission is necessary even for that. Some teaching and counseling may be observed unannounced through a one-way mirror or on videotape, but, again, a blanket permission from particpants is necessary.
Other observations – of doctors and nurses, for example – take place as a matter of course. In many health and human service situations, personal observation is relatively uncomplicated, and takes place regularly. Some workplaces allow for almost constant observation, since supervisors and supervisees may occupy the same working space, or do the same work at the same time.
- Revisit the supervisee’s job description with her on a regular basis, to make sure that it accurately reflects her actual work. If not, depending on the circumstances, either the work should be adjusted to more closely adhere to the job description, or the job decsription should be rewritten to better describe the real character of the job.
- Talk with the supervisee’s co-workers – or in the case of volunteers, the staff members they work with – to catch problems before they become major, and to gather praise to offer as well.
Supporting those you supervise
In addition to knowing what your staff and volunteers are doing, you should be working with them as well. This includes giving them new responsibilities, and keeping communication with them open. The following tips will all help make your supervision more effective and your organization more productive.
Build new leadership
Constantly challenge workers to try new things and accept new responsibility. Delegate responsibility whenever you can. By encouraging professional growth, you will encourage staff members and volunteers to fully buy into your organization, and that is what can help your agency take off.
Make sure that the lines of communication are wide open
This is absolutely necessary to ensure satisfied, dependable staff and volunteers who get the job done and make your organization successful.
To ensure effective communication:
- Make sure you are an active listener – focus all your attention on the speaker, making sure there are no distractions, and that you are concentrating on the message the speaker is trying to get across.
- Try to keep those you are talking to from taking the defensive. A great way to do this is by using "I" instead of "you" to start sentences. For example, "I'm not sure I understand the approach you're taking on the media campaign. Could you explain it to me?" is likely to get a clearer, more open response than "You aren't getting anywhere on the media project, are you?"
- Make sure communication is complete; never assume that staff members or volunteers know what is supposed to be done or how you feel about a certain issue.
Provide regular feedback both formally and informally to those you supervise
Formal feedback may take place on an annual, biannual, or quarterly written evaluation forms. Informal feedback may not be much more than aa simple "Hey! That looks great! Have you thought about adding this?" when going by someone's desk.
When providing formal feedback (either oral or written), you should strive to:
- Describe a worker's behavior instead of judging it
- Always appraise workers on how they are meeting or exceeding clear, predetermined standards
- Praise, praise, praise, the worker for strong or increased performance
- Decide whether other forms of feedback, such as self-assessment or peer review, would be appropriate at your organization to complement supervisory feedback
Informal feedback shouldn’t be a sometime thing. there’s the offhand comment described above, but informal feedback can and should include regular meetings to discuss the job, the staff member’s or volunteer’s feelings about it, whatever questions he has, what he’d like to add to his responsibilities (or get rid of), etc. In many situations, it’s also important to help supervisees sort out the personal issues they bring to their work (remember the example about Pilar), and how those issues affect what they do.
This kind of supervision, as we discussed earlier, should take the form of a partnership. Supervisor and supervisee work together to find the best ways for the supervisee to learn and practice new skills, solve problems, resolve conflicts, and continue to improve in her job. This partner relationship should be the basis for all supervision, and even when the supervisee is being held accountable for poor performance or unprofessional behavior, supervision shouldn’t feel like a power play, but rather like an interchange between equals with different responsibilities.
If there is a problem, intervene
Sometimes, even in the best of agencies, a staff member or volunteer isn't working up to potential or is causing interpersonal or other problems. In either situation, it’s the supervisor’s job to intervene, with sensitivity to everyone’s needs – the person in question, the other staff and volunteers affected, and the needs of the organization:
- Cool off first. Words spoken in the heat of the moment often become personal criticism instead of an objective comment on the problem.
- Seek privacy. Don't confront the employee or volunteer in public or in a degrading manner. (And don’t make it obvious to everyone that you’re about to confront her – no “I want to see you in my office NOW!”)
- Be as supportive as possible: this is a chance to find out why she is not working as well as you might like, or why she’s disruptive. You may be able to find out what’s behind the problem, and in doing so, find a way to help her transform into a real asset to the organization.
Holding supervisees accountable
Occasions do arise that require a supervisor to step in and deal with a problem. You should have set guidelines to cope with any problem that may surface.
If the problem is poor job performance, you should:
- Clearly state what it is that you find deficient. Give specific examples. "You're not working hard enough," isn't as helpful as, "You often don't have the newsletter articles written by the weekly deadline." It's also harder for the employee to refute.
- Give the employee the opportunity to describe his perspective, and really listen to what he has to say. It may well be there are reasons for the problem that you aren't aware of.
- Note the requirements to fix the problem; then solicit employee ideas on corrective measures.
- Notify the employee of the consequences of continuing problems.
- Monitor the employee's progress and explain (and apply) the consequences of failing to correct the problem.
If the problem is a policy violation, you should:
- Listen. Give the employee the chance to explain her actions. You may want to deal very differently with problems that occurred for different reasons. For example, the employee who took a four-hour lunch because his three year old broke her arm and he forgot to call might elicit more of your sympathy than the employee who took a four-hour lunch for that great sale at the clothing store.
- Act objectively. Concentrate on dealing with the problem, rather than the personalities involved.
- Assume responsibility. Do not hide behind the rules or apologize for what you are doing. Your job is to enforce the rules.
- Give a clear warning that defines what will happen if such behavior happens again. Be sympathetic, but also be firm.
- The second time something of a similar nature happens, the consequences defined earlier should be carried out in an immediate, consistent, and impersonal manner.
Role of the supervisee
The supervisors are not the only ones in your group who have responsibilities to the group. The following are some of the responsibilities of a good employee or volunteer.
- Be open and honest with other members of the organization regarding intent, goals, needs, and skills
- Understand the duties and time requirements of assignments before accepting them, and fulfill the commitment to the best of your ability
- Work to deserve being treated as a recognized and respected member of the team
- Take the commitment seriously enough to participate in planning and evaluating the program and in training and learning opportunities
- Share ideas with others
- View other staff members and volunteers as allies that you can learn from
- Respect the confidentiality of the organization and its clients
- Seek, accept, and use honest feedback on performance
- Serve as goodwill ambassadors for your organization and its services to the community
- Be informed of change when it is needed
The Florida Literacy Coalition’s Chapter 7: Supervision and Management of Volunteers, by Noemi Aguilar, is an example of how to create a volunteer management program and why it is crucial.
The 10 Keys to Effective Supervision: A Developmental Approach is a white paper from Rising Sun Consultants, by Richard A. Piers, Ph.D. and James S. Rowell, M.S.Ed.
Managing Volunteers: Balancing Risk and Reward, by Nonprofits’ Insurance Alliance of California and Alliance of Nonprofits for Insurance.
On Target: Combined Instructional Supervision and Staff Development by John N. Colantonio.
Successful Strategies for Recruiting, Training and Utilizing Volunteers: A Guide for Faith- and Community-Based Service Providers, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Stress-Free Volunteer Supervision by Massachusetts Service Alliance, contains share worthy tips that will increase the likelihood for staff members to view volunteers as a way to ease their workload, not add to it.
United Way of King County’s Volunteer Management: Challenges and Opportunities Facing Nonprofits by Rick Lynch and Nikki Russell.
Blanchard, K., & Johnson, S. (1982). The one minute manager. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Fisher, J. C., & Cole, K. M. (1993). Leadership and management of volunteer programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Goehring, E. (1993). Building a better staff: Vol. 2. Developing and keeping top notch staff. Frederick, MD: Aspen.
Vineyard, S. Basic volunteer management training packet. Heritage Arts. To order: phone (708) 964-1194 fax (708) 964-7338
Westheimer, I. J. (1977). The Practice of Supervision in Social Work. London: Ward Lock.
Wilson, M. (Speaker). How to motivate volunteers and staff; How to plan for volunteer and staff success; and Recruiting and interviewing volunteers. Video and Audio Cassettes. Volunteer Management Associates. To order, call (800) 944-1470; for inquires, call (303) 447-0558.
Wolf, J. (1991). Making things happen: How to be an effective volunteer. Washington: Island Press.
Monthly, Bimonthly, or Quarterly Publications Citizen Participation and Voluntary Abstracts
Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA)
Route 2, Box 696
Pullman, WA 99163
7201 McKinney Circle
P.O. Box 990
Frederick, MD (800) 638-8437
1807 Prairie Avenue
Downers Grove, Illinois 60515
Phone: (708) 964-1194
fax: (708) 9647338
A free catalog, "Volunteer Market place," is available on request.
The Journal of Volunteer Administration
Association for Volunteer Administration
P.O. Box 4584
Boulder, CO 80306
Association for Volunteer Administration
P.O. Box 4584
Boulder, CO 80306
Phone: (303) 541-0238
Center for Creative Leadership
P.O. Box 26300
Greenboro, NC 27438-6300
National Training and Information Center
810 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, IL 60647