Improving Satisfaction Among Shelter Volunteers (and Perhaps the Rest of Us, Too)

Shelter survey results and suggestions can help veterinary practices keep team members happy and engaged.
Karen Todd-Jenkins, VMD
Published: August 31, 2017
Animal shelters perform critically important work for their communities. Although some shelter workers are paid employees, volunteers are often needed to help shelters meet their daily obligations and long-term goals. Unfortunately, some shelter volunteers experience dissatisfaction with their work, which can affect their work performance and the overall effectiveness of the shelter operation.

This year’s Animal Care Expo in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, featured an interactive workshop that addressed some of the issues shelter volunteers face. The discussion also highlighted some of the things shelter volunteers say they like about the work they do.

This lively session was moderated by Steven Rogelberg, BS, MS, PhD, chancellor’s professor and director of organizational science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and two of the university’s doctoral students, Eleanor Williams and Haley Woznyj.

The moderators presented data from a large survey of shelter volunteers conducted by the Volunteer Program Assessment (VPA). VPA is an online, validated, diagnostic survey that polls volunteer workers at nonprofit organizations regarding their feelings and attitudes, as well as their reactions to the volunteer program. The survey also gathers information about what the volunteers perceive as the program’s greatest strengths and areas for growth. After the volunteers take the survey, a VPA consultant works one-on-one with the shelter’s volunteer coordinator and presents the shelter with a summary report.

To date, VPA has been administered to approximately 19,000 shelter volunteers at 175 shelter organizations to generate the data discussed in the current study. Once challenging areas were identified, the moderators worked with session attendees to develop solutions for addressing the issues volunteers face and improving the overall volunteer experience.

Applicability Across Fields
Although the session focused on animal shelter volunteers, many of the challenges workers reported are shared by people who work in other fields. Veterinary technicians and assistants, support staff, receptionists and even veterinarians themselves may experience some of the same feelings about the work they do. Therefore, the recommendations discussed in the workshop can easily be expanded to help improve work satisfaction for veterinary team members as well. For example, one of the challenges that most organizations participating in VPA face is role ambiguity, which refers to not knowing exactly what is expected of a volunteer or staff member. “This is certainly a feeling that veterinary staff might experience,” Dr. Rogelberg said. He and his colleagues discussed a range of solutions for reducing feelings of role ambiguity, such as focusing on training, ensuring that job descriptions are accurate and regularly updated, and possibly creating duty checklists for each role.

The moderators also described how the VPA survey covered numerous areas of volunteer experiences, including daily routines at work, the work environment itself, interactions with other volunteers and employees, and feelings about the overall philosophy and mission of the animal shelter — much of which can be translated to the veterinary hospital.

The Good News
The good news is that survey respondents noted several positive things about their volunteer experience, including:
  • Feeling that their work is meaningful to the organization’s mission
  • Feeling committed to the organization and its mission, and believing strongly in what they are doing
  • Having confidence in the quality of their work at the shelter
  • Feeling satisfaction with the volunteer coordinators at the shelter
Which Areas Need Work?
Survey respondents also indicated several areas of concern, including:
  • Role ambiguity: volunteers often don’t feel like they know what they’re supposed to be doing and which tasks should be prioritized
  • Feeling unrecognized and unappreciated for donating their time and resources to help the shelter’s cause
  • Dissatisfaction with relationships with paid staff members
  • Dissatisfaction with communication at the shelter facility
  • Lacking a voice or the chance to participate in decision making, and not feeling like their input has value
Once problem areas were identified, the rest of the session permitted attendees to break into small groups to come up with ideas for addressing the difficulties shelter volunteers face. Suggestions included:
  • Reducing role ambiguity:
    • Produce written job descriptions and a daily checklist of duties, so volunteers understand what is expected of them
    • Improve training for volunteers before they start working, and offer retraining opportunities for volunteers who have experience but want to grow in the organization with additional duties and responsibilities
  • Improving recognition:
    • Promote volunteer appreciation by learning the volunteers’ names, thanking them when they arrive for work and again when they leave, and working to build a culture of mutual appreciation between volunteers and employees
    • Initiate a volunteer-of-the-month program, feature the selected volunteer in the organization’s newsletter and present the designated volunteer with a plaque or reward
    • Recognize milestones, such as offering a small pin for completing a certain num- ber of volunteer hours
  • Increasing satisfaction with paid staff:
    • Develop mentor programs (involving paid staff) to help volunteers better understand the organization and their role in it
  • Improving communication:
    • Create a weekly or monthly newsletter to let volunteers know what is going on in the organization
    • Create a social media space (such as a Facebook group) where volunteers can communicate with one another
  • Facilitating perception of voice:
    • Conduct shift meetings and invite volunteers, so that both volunteers and other employees have a voice and an opportunity to participate, which will promote improved teamwork
The Value of VPA
The VPA originated from a partnership between the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the Humane Society of the United States. It is maintained by faculty and graduate students at the university’s organizational science doctoral program and its university partners.

In 1999, the VPA was created when its originators realized that euthanasias create stress for people who have to perform them or participate in them. This encouraged VPA to look at this issue and other factors that affect the daily lives and stress levels for shelter volunteers. Part of VPA’s mission is to help managers of nonprofit organizations better understand and manage their volunteer programs by exploring the organization’s strengths and weaknesses through the eyes of volunteers. The organization is subsidized by grants, so there is no cost to the shelter programs or other nonprofit groups for agreeing to be surveyed.

As suggested by the moderators, the workplace challenges described here are not unique to animal shelter volunteers. Through its extensive activities and surveys, VPA has provided services to help religious groups, hospitals, law enforcement agencies and other nonprofit entities. The strategies that evolve from these surveys can also certainly apply in the veterinary space as well, Dr. Rogelberg said.

 
Dr. Todd-Jenkins received her VMD degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She is a medical writer and has remained in clinical practice for over 20 years. She is a member of the American Medical Writers Association and One Health Initiative.

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