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Learn how to maintain the staff members and volunteers of your organization as well as keeping them focused and determined to overcome difficulties.


  • What is support?

  • Why should you give support to staff and volunteers?

  • When give support to staff and volunteers?

  • How do you provide support for staff and volunteers?

What is support?

The most important part of building a house is getting the foundation right, because a house needs proper support to maintain its structure. Proper support maintains the staff members and volunteers of groups and organizations as well, keeping them focused and determined over time and through difficulties. Support for volunteers and staff helps workers to do their jobs more quickly, effectively, and comfortably.

In the previous section, we discussed the importance of supervising staff and volunteers. Supervision is one form of support, but support goes beyond just that. It can take a variety of forms – physical, professional, emotional, intellectual, and financial. Supporting staff and volunteers mean providing them with the right training, backing them up, rewarding them for their work, supervising them properly and regularly, keeping their morale high, and making sure they have whatever they need to do their jobs successfully.

Why should you give support to staff and volunteers?

There are as many reasons to support the people that work with you as there are reasons to care about them. When your staff and volunteers feel they're being supported, they’ll work better and more efficiently, care more about their jobs, and want to do their best because the organization treats them well..

Other reasons to provide support include:

  • To maintain a high level of morale within your group
  • To prevent burnout
  • To show appreciation
  • To keep lines of communication open
  • To make your organization appealing to potential members
  • To keep quality staff members, and by doing so, maintain and improve the quality of the service you provide

When should you provide support?

There is never a time you shouldn't give support to your staff and volunteers. Skilled, contented workers are what makes an organization effective and worthwhile, and a great amount of care should be taken to see that talented people remain with your agency or community group.

However, at certain times, workers will need or appreciate more support than usual. These times include:

  • When they are new. Almost everyone feels uncertain when they begin a new job, whether it is paid or volunteer. Show workers right from the start that they are an integral part of your agency, and bend over backward to ensure that they get what they need to do the best job they can.
  • When they are going through difficulties or change in their personal life (such as a divorce or the death of a loved one). Make sure your employees or staff members know you care about them as people, not just as a set of hands, and that you are concerned about what happens to them.
  • On special occasions such as birthdays and graduations. Again, it's important that you and the organization demonstrate its concern for staff members and volunteers as people as well as workers, and that they see administrators and board members as fellow human beings, not just “the boss.”
  • When the organization is experiencing difficulties. When you’re in a financial crunch, when you’ve received – rightly or wrongly – bad publicity, when opponents of your goals seem to be winning, staff and volunteers can get discouraged and question their commitment to the work.  It’s important that they feel that they’re not alone, that the organizationj is not about to give up on them or on its issue, and that they’re supported in what they do.

How do you provide support for staff and volunteers?

As support can mean many things, it makes sense that there are various ways you can provide it. In providing support for volunteers and staff, consider the issue from these different angles:

  • A supportive work environment
  • Support for the work done by the staff member/volunteer
  • Support for the worker in his or her personal life

Create a supportive physical environment

We all know how the environment affects us, especially our work environment. The stress of working in an uncomfortable, unhealthy, or unsafe space can not only make workers less productive, but also leave them feeling that nobody cares about their well being. Acknowledging the need for windows, healthy air and clean surroundings is critical to any kind of work. First and foremost, make sure the physical environment is safe.

A comfortable work environment has to be comfortable psychologically as well as physically. That means that there should be plenty of light to work by. (Natural light from windows is best; when that’s not possible, make sure there’s plenty of light to work by and brighten up the space.)  Any supplies that people need should be easily accessible. Everyone should have enough room to move around, and enough private space to feel that she can organize, store, and find whatever she needs for her job. Furniture needn’t be new and expensive, but it should be comfortable (and movable, so that people can change it around as they need to for meetings, conversation, and collaboration.) Having coffee, tea, water, and snacks available – whether the organization supplies them or staff and volunteers share the cost – relaxes the atmosphere, as can a casual dress code and informal, democratic office culture.

Your space shouldn’t suffer from “sick building syndrome,” often caused by fumes given off by new carpeting, paneling, glues, and other materials containing volatile organic compounds (VOC’s.)  If possible, choose space that’s light, airy, and has windows that open. If tap water isn’t drinkable, try to have bottled water on hand, and keep the space reasonably clean (particularly rest rooms.)  Encourage staff members and volunteers (and participants) to stay home and recover if they’re ill, and do the same yourself, to avoid spreading sickness through the organization. A healthy workplace is also one where relationships are healthy – where people don’t resolve conflict by yelling, where there’s a good deal of humor, and where people actively enjoy spending time.

To create a safe workplace, you have to consider the possibility of accidents, emergencies, and crime. You should regularly check the space for exposed wiring (that might either shock or be tripped over), electrical problems, loose carpeting, protruding nails, broken furniture, etc., and problems corrected. Any safety issues that might affect people with disabilities need to be dealt with to the extent that the organization can afford.

The organization should develop and make sure that everyone is familiar with emergency procedures for fire, electrical outage, storms, flooding, chemical spills – whatever might be a possibility in the area where you work. You should also make sure that there’s plenty of light in corridors and parking lots and on the street outside, and that there’s emergency lighting available if it’s needed (this could be anything from candles or flashlights to automatic lighting that runs off an emergency generator.

Depending on the kind of work you do, or the neighborhood where your space is located, you may also want to establish clear guidelines about locked storage for particular materials or equipment (drugs, for example), and about people not working or leaving alone. Emergency numbers – police fire, ambulance, hospital – should be posted or readily available, and policies made for how to deal with real or threatened violence.

Support the work itself

No environment is supportive enough if we are not supported in the work we do. Show your staff and volunteers that you support them in their tasks. For instance, involve volunteers and staff members in all decisions that will affect them. This way, you can help foster a sense of ownership that will enhance their connection to the work and to the organization.

Another way to support the work of your staff is to put aside funds to send them to out-of-office seminars, conferences, and other events. Attending these activities will lead to a greater sense of purpose, and tell them that they are an important part of the organization.

Even a small step, such as matching people with tasks and situations that relate to their interests, will make a big impression on your staff and volunteers once they recognize you care about them and about their interests. This way, you can also keep a record of volunteer activities that the volunteer participated in. Your volunteer will be able to use that for a resume, eventually.

Here are some other steps you can take to show support for staff and volunteer work:

  • Train workers thoroughly, including a clear explanation of:
    • Their job duties
    • Expected standards of performance
    • What the agency does and why
    • The people they’ll be working with
    • The nature of the community
    • Problems they might encounter in their work, and what to do about them
    • Any particular techniques or methods they need to use
    • Policies and procedures – use of phones, computers, Internet; where supplies are; who has access to what; when and how they get paid; benefits, and how to claim them; grievance procedure; dress code, if any
    • Organizational culture – how people relate to one another and to participants, the unspoken “rules” about how the organization functions day to day
  • Foster personal initiative. When someone suggests trying a different procedure, for instance, encourage him to experiment with it. If it works well, recognize the owner of the idea. Don't let staff or volunteers feel like their ideas are never accepted, or taken without credit.
  • Apply organizational policies equally to everyone.
  • Involve volunteers and staff in major agency decisions and problem-solving sessions. Schedule regular meetings when staff and volunteers can raise issues of concern to them.
  • Be sure your organization allows for advancement of volunteers as well as paid staff to help foster a sense of pride and self-worth, and to recognize the fact that experience helps people improve their work.
  • Have a mechanism to give regular feedback to volunteers and staff regarding their work.This may include oral or written feedback such as regular evaluations.
  • Make sure that everyone in the organization gets regular helpful supervision.
  • Give the staff and volunteers a chance to evaluate their supervisor and the agency, either personally or anonymously.
  • Criticize privately and praise publicly.
  • Recognize work that is well done. This may be done in a variety of ways, including:
    • A "Volunteer of the Week" column in a local newspaper
    • A plaque with an agency "Worker of the Month"
    • Nominations for awards
    • Thank you notes
  • Assign tasks that will challenge staff and volunteers, and allow them to shine.

Support the person doing the work

Personal support is always welcome. Only computers work well without some praising once in a while and without any human warmth. People enjoy feedback and it won't take much of your time to praise your staff for something they did well, or to offer help when they’re struggling. Make sure staff and volunteers know that you are approachable and willing to listen to personal problems as well as work-related problems.


  • Make an effort to know more about the worker than just her name and agency duties: try to learn about her as a person: her family, interests, ideas, history, etc. On the flip side, be sensitive to and respecting people’s desire for privacy.
  • Send birthday cards, remember holidays, etc.
  • Remember workers in times of crisis. If your agency is facing problems, make sure that everyone has accurate and up-to-date information on the situation, and knows how it might her and others.
  • Reimburse work-related expenses, such as travel or formal lunches
  • Recommend staff members and volunteers to potential employers

In Summary

To provide support is fundamental if you want to have productive and satisfied staff members and volunteers. Staff members and volunteers are key to successful community efforts. The people that work in your organization should be treated as assets, with respect and caring. There are many ways of showing and providing support. You can support the people who do the work, you can support the work they do, and you can create a supportive work environment. There are occasions in which support is fundamental, but there's no right time to do it. Whatever you do, remember that assisting your volunteers, and providing your staff with the support they need, will make your job much easier in the long run.

Jenette Nagy
Marcelo Vilela

Print Resources

Bock, K. (1990). Volunteers: the hands, head, and heart of a shepherd's center. Retirement Research Foundation.

Fisher,  J., & Cole, M.  (1993). Leadership and management of volunteer programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Goehring, E., (1993). Building a better staff, volume II: developing and keeping top notch staff. Frederick, MD: Aspen.

Schindler,  E., & Lippitt, R. (1974). The volunteer community. Fairfax, VA: NTL Learning Resources.

Vineyard, S. "Basic Volunteer Management Training Packet." Heritage Arts, phone (708) 964-1194 fax (708) 964-7338.

Wilson, M. 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 inquiries, call (303) 447-0558.

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
(509) 332-3417

Staff Leader
Aspen Publishers
7201 McKinney Circle
P.O. Box 990
Frederick, MD (800) 638-8437

Heritage Arts
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
(303) 541-0238


Kansas Association of Nonprofit Organizations
P.O. Box 780227
400 North Woodlawn, Suite 212
Wichita, KS 67278-0227
Phone: (316) 685-3790
Fax: (316) 686-1133

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
(919) 288-3999

National Training and Information Center
810 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, IL 60647
(312) 243-3035