We are often asked about how to provide volunteers with feedback. And, in fact, we [recently blogged](link to the blog about Performance Evaluation) about this very topic. However, rarely are we asked about how organizational leaders can create opportunities for volunteers to provide feedback to them, and it’s even rarer to be asked about the benefits of doing so. Of course, it’s not surprising that people seek ways to provide feedback much more readily than they are to open themselves up to receiving feedback. Yet, organizations that are open to feedback are often more resilient and, therefore more successful.
Resilience is the topic of one of the books on my summer reading list. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy is a compelling mix of personal insights and research, chronicling Sandberg’s journey after the sudden death of her husband and interweaves Grant’s research on strategies that help individuals build resilience to help not only survive adversity but also be able to thrive – eventually.
I didn’t expect to find insights relating to volunteer engagement in the book, and yet I did. In fact, I was reading the book on the flight home after leading workshops for staff at a client organization in California and immediately saw connections between the two. I had just spent a full day with 30 staff members exploring how to use feedback as a way to deal with sticky situations within staff-volunteer relationships when I came upon Sandberg and Grant’s chapter entitled, “Failing and Learning at Work.” Feedback, it turns out, plays a vital role in creating resilient and successful organizations – and it all comes down to seeking feedback as an opportunity to learn and improve.
It is very easy for volunteer engagement professionals and organizational leaders to become defensive when volunteers have feedback to share, but if volunteers are truly our partners in achieving our mission, then they also have the potential to be our partners in learning and in achieving success. Therefore, their input is vital information.
Why gather volunteer feedback?
Teams that focus on learning from failure outperform those that don’t.
Option B, p. 148
We have repeatedly seen with clients that organizations who bring volunteer leaders into discussions about challenges benefit in many ways. First, volunteers are more invested in an organization when they know that their input is taken seriously and that they are part of the program process. They don’t even have to have all their ideas implemented – but if their ideas are considered, they know that they are taken seriously and are appreciated. Additionally, in times of challenge, volunteers often can provide solutions that staff may not have considered.
- Include volunteers in program or event debriefs, whether the event was a success or a failure.
But won’t it hurt staff’s reputation if we open ourselves up to feedback from volunteers?
Sue [Ashford]’s studies show that although fishing for compliments hurts your reputation, asking for criticism signals that you care about improving.
Option B, p. 151
Opening oneself up to feedback can feel risky, yet research and our work with many different organizations point to the many benefits of creating a culture where feedback is both welcomed and valued. In one animal shelter, for example, a cat care manager was open to feedback from a relatively new volunteer who came to the shelter with a lot of experience. She had volunteered at other shelters before and is a registered nurse. After providing some feedback on the lack of protocols in the holding area for sick cats, the nurse was willing to volunteer to help make improvements. In fact, she organized an entirely new protocol for the area that is still in use today more than a year later.
- Encourage staff to seek input and feedback from skilled volunteers by sharing stories of successes and how volunteer input has helped others in the organization.
We can’t possibly take all the feedback volunteers have to offer! How could we possibly handle all the feedback volunteers want to give?
Accepting feedback is easier when you don’t take it personally. Being open to criticism means you get even more feedback, which makes you better. One way to lessen the sting of criticism is to evaluate how well you handle it. “After every low score you receive,” law professors Doug Stone and Sheila Heen advise,” you should “give yourself a ‘second score’ based on how you handle the first score… Even when you get an F for the situation itself, you can still earn an A+ for how you deal with it.”
Option B, p. 151
Yes, we are well aware that volunteers often have a lot to offer in terms of feedback and that can be overwhelming for staff. However, as noted in the excerpt above, how you handle the feedback is crucial. Being open to feedback is not the same as actually taking every piece of advice. Being open to feedback shows that you are committed to improvement and that you value the ideas and experience that volunteers have to offer, even if you don’t implement every suggestion. Creating a culture that is open to feedback happens on two levels: the informal one-on-one level and a more formal group level. Like the animal shelter example above, creating an openness between individual staff members and volunteers can lead to improvements in processes, efficiency, and, in the case of that shelter, more lives saved. Having a solid vetting process for volunteers, effective placement, and good training for staff members all contribute to a relationship of trust and openness between staff and volunteers. In fact, another client of ours recently reported how an improved screening process has dramatically improved staff openness to partnering with volunteers before they are investing time in qualified volunteers with skills to give.
On the more formal group level, organizations can create a culture of openness by seeking input from volunteers through surveys and open forums or focus groups. The key is not only asking for input, but sharing the results of the surveys or forums through communications back to volunteers. There’s nothing more frustrating than taking the time to complete a survey and then having no idea whether your input was considered or if it went into a black hole never to be read or considered. It’s vital that organizations share the results back with volunteers. When we conducted an assessment recently with a national health organization, we were asked to report to the volunteer corps on the survey process and results at their national volunteer meeting so that volunteers understood how their input fit into the larger picture and how it translated to recommendations for action.
- Provide training to staff on how to give and receive feedback.
- Survey volunteers annually and hold occasional open forums or town halls to update volunteers and seek input, then be sure to communicate back to the volunteer corps about the input and the actions to be taken as a result.