Imagine a hospital where patients receive not only skilled medical care but also companionship, support, welcome diversion, and lifted spirits; where the needs of visiting family members are noticed and met; where the connection to community needs are recognized and resource solutions developed. Such scenarios are often made possible by the unsung heroes of hospitals and healthcare organizations.
Healthcare volunteers enhance the experience of patients and their families, improve community relations, and often raise both awareness and money for missions and causes. None of this would be possible without the efforts of the paid staff who manage and lead their activities. Despite the ubiquitous presence of volunteers throughout healthcare, the real value of those who lead them is often overlooked.
This article looks at the role of healthcare volunteer administration, its value, and action steps nonprofit hospitals can take to strategically use volunteers to improve patient experience.
THE ROLE OF THE VOLUNTEER LEADER
Leaders of volunteers in healthcare have a diverse set of duties that make them some of the most resourceful and aware problem-solvers in the organization. While it is tempting to believe that anyone can lead volunteers, the exact opposite is true. It takes a unique skill set, personality, and leadership ability to effectively manage a large unpaid workforce in a highly regulated industry. These skills make up a unique body of knowledge.
The Beryl Institute, a leader in healthcare patient experience movement, certainly acknowledges this. Beryl offers the Certified Administrator of Volunteer Services (CAVS) credential that validates this body of knowledge.
“The Evolving Role of Healthcare Volunteer Programs: Elevating the Human Experience through Generosity and Connection”, a 2022 whitepaper, explored the strategic role that volunteers play in healthcare. The paper, published by Beryl, concludes with the observation that “solid volunteer infrastructures reinforce their purpose, and providing the right tools allows a broader, extended volunteer reach”.
Additionally, research findings indicate that the use of strategic volunteer management practices in hospitals leads to better performance by volunteer labor and, in turn, may improve the hospitals bottom line (Rogers, 2017). Yet, most in hospital leadership still fail to prioritize the development of their volunteer directors and the departments they lead.
THE VALUE OF VOLUNTEER LEADERSHIP
Hospitals do express gratitude for the contribution of volunteers. Extend that awareness to the leaders with the skills who helped make those voluntary contributions happen. Volunteer departments are the channel for caring community members who want to help. It’s not as easy as it looks to recruit, train, coordinate, supervise, and lead community members through the rigors of a regulated system so that they can work without financial compensation.
As a whole volunteer leaders in healthcare tend to be understaffed, underpaid, and under-utilized. Short on time, but big on savvy, I have found volunteer leaders do share certain attributes that lend to their success, including the following:
COMMUNITY RELATIONSHIP BUILDERS
Volunteer directors often have the largest number of direct reports on the organizational
chart. They recruit for, train, and supervise volunteers in roles throughout the medical center. Volunteer leaders are adept at outreach to both external and internal stakeholders and are often excellent communicators as such. They can inspire and continually motivate the unpaid work force to embrace the mission.
CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVERS
Volunteer leaders as a whole are creative thinkers who are resourceful. Those who manage volunteers are used to working with little to nothing. Working with small budgets, limited staff resources and a workforce of voluntary labor, volunteer leaders leverage the value of these constraints by producing low-cost solutions to meet organizational goals.
The role of healthcare volunteer leaders is an eclectic one in healthcare. From parking lots to patient bedsides, from waiting rooms to community clothing closets, the scope and responsibilities of this role is varied and wide.
This situation reminds me of that familiar utility drawer we all have at home, the one where we stash valuable odds and ends that don't quite fit anywhere else, but we know they hold significance. I playfully dub this diverse aspect of healthcare volunteer services as the "hospital's junk drawer." You see, a "junk drawer" is a misnomer, because it is actually quite the opposite! It's a medley of items, yet when you need a specific one, you can effortlessly locate it amidst the other assorted bits and pieces.
Similarly, the director of volunteers often ends up with a disparate array of work-related responsibilities. In fact, this wide breadth of responsibilities is reflected in the lengthy job titles that try to elicit the variety.
Perhaps at no time was this attribute more clearly illustrated then during the pandemic when most hospitals eliminated the work of community volunteers. During that time, leaders of volunteers did not sit on the sidelines. Overnight many took on “other duties as assigned”, quickly adapting to new roles to support employees, operations, and the community.
Managers of volunteers have some of the greatest wholistic perspective of what is happening in the organization. Having placed community members in departments, service lines, and programs throughout the medical center, they have their pulse on a large variety of individual area activities and initiatives like no other member of the staff, not even the CEO.
ACTION STEPS NONPROFIT HOSPITALS CAN TAKE TO STRATEGICALLY USE VOLUNTEERS
Tapping the potential of your volunteer services department in a strategic way is innovative and cost effective, but it must be a supported priority.
Volunteer services is capable of a lot, but too often the ask for support comes with no additional resources for the implementation. The contributions of volunteers is limited only by the resources that the staff who lead them are given. Investing in volunteer leadership will build organizational capacity.
Here are several suggestions for action steps that hospital leadership can take to support those directing volunteer services:
Foster a culture of collaboration with these leaders. Invite them to the table, even when there doesn’t seem to be a clear reason. No one other than your leader of volunteers is looking at challenges through their unique lens. By explicitly inviting this perspective into operational meetings provides an avenue for innovation.
Strategic Use Action Steps
Sit down with your leader of volunteers and explain that you would like to engineer human volunteer-based solutions to organizational challenges.
Identify the coordinators of key decision making groups and get your volunteer leader in the room to bring a unique perspective.
Motivate and retain the talented individuals in this role. Those in the role tend to be either very new to the role or just the opposite, having stayed for the love of the job, certainly not the pay and prestige. Unleash the creative problem solving nature of this group by investing in resources to support it.
Strategic Use Action Steps
Support your volunteer leadership in getting and maintaining the Certified Administrator of Volunteer Services (CAVS) credential
Find out the ratio of paid staff: volunteer in the department responsible for satisfying the organizational needs of unpaid volunteers. Compare that to the ratio of staff: employee in departments that meet the organizational needs of those paid stakeholders.
If you identify an equity gap in the support, provide additional staffing resources to your volunteer services team.
For maximum performance, place the reporting structure of your healthcare volunteer leaders as close to the CEO as possible. To whom your director of volunteers reports will make a difference to your end strategic design. Commonly, volunteer leaders are found nested under human resources or philanthropy, neither of which advances patient outcomes in a direct manner.
The most strategic way that volunteers can be used as part of solution-design is in improving the patient experience. With that goal in mind, the organizational chart should reflect this by having the leader of volunteers find their home being directly supported by the senior division leader responsible for patient experience.
Strategic Use Action Steps
Identify where your volunteer leader is in your organizational chart.
Update the organizational chart to have the leader of volunteers directly report to the senior leader responsible for patient experience and strategy. Consider having the leader of volunteers report directly to the CEO
VOLUNTEERS AS INNOVATIVE SOLUTION-DESIGN
This is a crucial moment to reevaluate the role of volunteers and the paid staff in departments that oversee them. As the pandemic recedes into the past and we look forward to rebuilding our volunteer programs, hospitals should look at these departments with fresh eyes and perspective to unleash the untapped potential in their midst. Savvy C-suite leaders should be strategic and intentional in strengthening volunteer programs.
The involvement and influence of the leaders of volunteers is far reaching. In the emergency department, volunteers attend to the needs of those waiting for care to make the time more bearable. On the nursing unit, they partner with paid staff to take care of non-medical needs that impact patients’ perception of care. Volunteers often make the very first impression in parking garages and facility entry points and frequently are the last to say goodbye as they provide a wheelchair escort to a discharged patient and their family leaving the hospital. They are the engine that runs events, health fairs, and fundraisers bridging the community to healthcare. Staff benefit from the extra set of eyes, ears, and hands that lighten the load or provide resources that help mitigate burnout.
It is time for CEO’s, COO’s, and the rest of the C-Suite to take notice of this underutilization. Empower volunteer services. Their work comes at a minimal cost compared to the benefits they bring to patients, to the organization, and to the community.
The Beryl Institute. (2022). The Evolving Role of Healthcare Volunteer Programs [White paper]. Retrieved from https://www.theberylinstitute.org/store/viewproduct.aspx?id=21282543
Rogers, S. (2017). Strategic management practices help hospitals get the most from volunteers. Cornell Hospitality Report. 17(5). https://ecommons.cornell.edu/server/api/core/bitstreams/c3085990-e89d-42c8-8571-310dab34738e/content
Roseanna Galindo, ECBA, CAVS
Roseanna Galindo is Principal at Periscope Business Process Analysis and a champion for data literacy, the human experience in healthcare, and leaders of volunteers everywhere. Learn more about Roseanna and her blog, The Periscope Insighter, by reading the opening post, Venn The Time Is Right
Roseanna is available for training, keynotes, and executive coaching. Visit PeriscopeBPA.com for more information.
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