Approaches to supervising

Supervision is often seen as something that must be done for those who aren't competent to work alone or who can't be trusted to complete a task independently. Yet organisations who take supervision seriously find that people respond positively when they have clear directions, know what's expected of them and know there is someone who can answer their questions or take their feedback. Providing these things is the key to good volunteer support and supervision.

Why is supervision important?

Supervision allows a volunteer program to function effectively and gives volunteers reassurance and support. It is often a prerequisite for an organisation if they wish to insure their volunteers.

Supervision is about ensuring volunteers work to their greatest potential. This may mean giving volunteers more training, encouragement and/or more responsibilities. It also means asking them whether their volunteering role is meeting their expectations and collecting useful feedback about the program and your organisation.

In the long run, this means happier volunteers who feel they are part of your organisation and have a sense of purpose in their involvement.

Qualities of a good supervisor

Being a good supervisor is essentially caring about how your volunteers are fitting into your organisation and engaging with their work. The first step in setting up a good working relationship with your volunteers is to ensure that they are welcomed into your organisation and inducted into their roles. This doesn't mean continually looking over their shoulder or interfering in the work that they do. However, periodically touching base to see how they are going and to provide any clarification or explanation regarding their duties will help ease them into their roles.

A good supervisor will also be on the look-out for when a volunteer's expectations are not being met or when a volunteer changes their motivations for being involved. The easiest way to gauge these changes is to regularly ask your volunteers and those they are working with how they are going.

A supervisor will also need to be on the look-out for signs that a volunteer doesn't feel comfortable in their role or, alternatively, wants more responsibilities. This is particularly important when working with volunteers who are more likely to put their hand up to lend a hand for all sorts of tasks and roles simply because they like to help out.

A good supervisor doesn't always need to be working side-by-side with volunteers to give them adequate support. Periodic meetings, couple with performance appraisals or formal reviews can also provide support. More formal reviews are also a useful tool to get feedback and document a volunteer's progress.

Performance appraisals, reviews and meetings

It is important to have regular discussions with volunteers about their work and progress. These can be a mix of regular, informal catch-ups to check progress and provide support through to more formal performance appraisals or an evaluation of your program from the volunteer's perspective.

Creating opportunities to provide support and supervision help volunteers to feel part of your organisation and give them the opportunity to voice their suggestions or concerns. They also provide the opportunities to improve your volunteer program and to gain creative ideas for recruiting more volunteers.

Whether formal or informal, meeting with volunteers should always focus on two-way communication. Create an open and welcoming environment where everyone feels comfortable to ask questions, share stories and to give and receive feedback.

Some useful ways to provide your volunteers with support and supervision include:

  • Periodic group sessions where volunteers can talk with peers as well as supervisors
  • Periodic one-on-one sessions (both on-the-job and away from the job)
  • Periodic personal debriefing sessions
  • Encourage an open door policy where volunteers are always welcome into the office
  • Performance appraisals and reviews (typically used for volunteers in on-going roles)
  • Feedback and evaluation surveys (ensure you share feedback and proposed actions with everyone who contributed)
  • A suggestion box where anonymous comments can be submitted

See our Tools and resources below for links to supervision and support resources including performance review templates, evaluation forms and appraisal templates.

Questions to prompt two-way feedback

Regardless of how you decide to best communicate with your volunteers, you need to encourage conversations and feedback with the right kinds of questions. Remember to listen to what the volunteers say and take their suggestions seriously. One of the biggest rewards for any volunteer is seeing their ideas implemented.

The types of questions that prompt two-way conversations with volunteers include:

  • What's going well with the program?
  • What hasn't gone well?
  • Are you satisfied in your role?
  • Do you feel your time is productive?
  • Did you receive adequate training?
  • How can the volunteer program be improved?
  • Are there any tasks in the organisation that you want to do?
  • Do you feel like there is any support or training that you need?

Peer to peer supervision and shadowing

Experienced and dedicated volunteers are a fantastic resource for showing new volunteers the ropes. Using volunteers to supervise and guide other volunteers encourages a team approach and promotes and recognises experienced and dedicated volunteers. Similarly, shadowing is a process where new or inexperienced volunteers can follow or work with an experienced partner.

However, it is vital to provide your volunteer team leaders with appropriate training and supervision. Team leaders must feel confident in their role and be able to report back to the volunteer coordinator or manager.

Tools and resources