Relationships are Key: How to attract and support effective volunteers
An interview with Sheryl Harrow, READ Saskatoon
In 2005, READ Saskatoon released Building Capacity to Attract and
Retain Literacy Volunteers. The report was the result of an extensive
project to examine why the number of volunteer tutors was declining
and to discover what READ Saskatoon could do to recruit and retain
them. Sheryl Harrow, one of the principal researchers, spoke to Tannis
Atkinson in the spring of 2006.
is the history of this project? How did it come about?
2001 the staff noticed a decline in the number of people attending
our tutor trainings. We were only getting six people to our volunteer
trainings, four times a year. That was huge decline—in previous
years we had at least 14 to 20 people at each training. At the
same time staff attended a volunteer management certificate course and
learned about the “face of the new volunteer,” so we started
to put some pieces together and question what we were doing, or rather,
what we were not doing. Why was it that so few people were attending
our trainings, when we had been doing exactly the same things around
publicity, marketing and recruitment?
In 2000 we had brought in the volunteer criminal record check. We quickly
attributed the decline in volunteers to the fact that they had to commit
to 12 hours of training and then provide a criminal record check. We
assumed this was what had lowered our numbers. That wasn’t it at
all, looking back.
We started to spin our wheels: “How quickly can we solve this
problem?” Our response and strategy were to look at what we were
doing wrong. We began to tinker with the program, which, in hindsight,
was worse than leaving it alone. We rushed into solutions because we
wanted so desperately to fix the problem, instead of just asking what
the real problem was.
Finally, we hit upon a solution. How about doing a research project
investigating our program …which is when we finally came up with
the idea of research in practice.
you talk about the structure of the research project?
we got an inkling that the project was bigger than we thought, we put
in an application to the National Literacy Secretariat (NLS). We got
turned down, but were glad we were—we wouldn’t have got the
data we needed. Two weeks later we got a call for proposals from the
Knowledge Development Centre. We reworked and resubmitted our application.
They said the idea was good but they wanted this to be a successful application
so we should do the research and learn about the research process. We
had to bring in someone with a PhD and get some extra support from the
READ Saskatoon Board. We had ten days to find a sociologist who had time
to devote to the project, bring her up to speed, and reshape the
project’s methodology. It was a huge job, but we did it.
you were first told you needed to involve someone with a PhD, were you
reluctant or resistant? Did you think that it would change your project?
can honestly say that I didn’t feel like that. We wanted so much
to know the answers to our question that we were willing to let go of
any ego. We saw it as bringing credibility to our paper and to what we’re
doing and also so the funder could trust us.
this your first research?
was my very first research. It was a lot of work. I wish that the schedule
was set up to reflect how research works—some weeks it took 15
hours and some it took 60 hours. It was wonderful; we had wonderful people
to work with. But it was a frustrating length of time. We started off
in January 2003 with the literature review, then had two focus groups
in 2004, then a huge survey of all volunteers from the past ten years,
then a survey of over 100 adult tutors. That was a lot in one year. And
then time to write it up. So it was a very long process.
you do another?
I would. I don’t know if I would do one with as many methodologies
attached. We were naïve going into the process. Now that a year
has gone by, I have questions that have come out of our research report
and there are things I would love to do as a spin-off. Staff at READ
Saskatoon are responsible to 135 adult learners and 135 volunteers. We
keep in contact by phoning a lot of people. They need one-to-one conversation,
to normalize the tutoring experience more than anything. Because of the
research findings, we developed a mentoring project and secured money
from NLS for a mentoring project where experienced volunteers mentor
new volunteers. We would not have done that without this project.
I would do another research project. I’d like to do follow-up
after the mentoring piece has wound up. I would like to see if
the mentoring has made a difference to the length of time people
volunteer. Our goal is that if people volunteer for two, three or four
years we have done amazingly well. Another question I have is: how many
tutors exit with learners? I want to learn more about our intake process.
A lot hinges on the adult learner’s commitment and their ability
to articulate what they want to do. I’m not sure that we are clear
enough that this is about that learner—their needs, what they want
to work on. So I think there is definitely something to be looked
at in our intake process with learners to make matches more successful
and to be strategic about who we place learners with.
experience is that sometimes learners know something about what
they need, but as they get more confident, more things come up.
an ongoing process.
have found that when learners transition from tutoring to other learning
institutions or structured learning settings, they do not want to take
a tutor with them. Maybe they don’t think that the tutor can go
with them. They don’t picture themselves in an educational institution
with a tutor. I found it interesting because the volunteers helped them
other questions did you have?
big light bulb was the perception versus the reality of what happens
when people volunteer. That hit home for us. We are responsible for being
accurate about what the tutoring relationship can be like. Often we didn’t
want to be truly honest—we learned that we need to be more up-front.
We’re good about showing off learners who have excelled in their
learning: those who manage a department store, own a business or are
the foreman of a crew.... We should be proud, but we can’t set
that up as the norm. This is not what all learners or tutors experience.
Some tutors who see very little progress also experience great rewards
in their tutoring relationship. To reduce the gap between perception
and reality, we put together quotes from volunteers who had both good
and bad experiences. Now, in the last hour of the training, we problem-solve
about what volunteers can do: talk to staff, do they know about supports
in the community, is this adult learner ready for reading and writing?
The more that we can close the gap between the tutor’s perception
and the reality of volunteering, the longer the volunteer will be around.
This is about honesty and being completely up front. The volunteers who
are with us the longest have the greatest empathy. Writing and reading
are significant but so is everything else with adult learners.
of learners are dealing with so many other issues, not just a lack of
seems like it’s the middle and upper class who tend to volunteer.
They can be very removed from what low-income families struggle with.
There’s a difference between their perception and the reality of
who the learners are. As one volunteer says on page 17 of the research
report: “I didn’t consider this person [to be] an adult,
I just thought she had never learned to read.” That’s a class
am interested in that whole question because the literacy program I worked
in during the late 80s in Toronto had a lot of Caribbean students and
a lot of white, middle-class tutors. Volunteers kept saying, “My
student needs to learn to speak English.” There were layers of
not understanding—that that person worked two jobs, maybe had not
had dinner when they got to the program—on top of the expectations
about why they thought the students were there. We had to change our
tutor training to address the cultural differences and experiences. We
educated tutors about Creole languages—that it’s not bad
English, it’s a specific grammar you don’t know about, a
distinct language. Sometimes we felt we spent more time training tutors,
educating tutors about the students’ realities, when the program
was set up to address the learners’ needs. In every volunteer program
there is that tension—how to most effectively use volunteers. Once
we realized what the fundamental issues were, it felt easier to deal
talked about adding cultural awareness to our training. We do touch on
it but don’t get into the cultural aspect. Our training now is
12 hours. If we did more we’d have to take something else out.
I really like the whole idea of an additional weekend training at a later
date—bring in those who identify they would like more work on cultural
Another thing is a clash with why people volunteer. Everyone volunteers
because they love to read. But they are working with people who don’t
read—there is a discrepancy there. The agency is built on people’s
deficits. We’re here because there is a group of people who can’t
do something. We have a responsibility to flip that, to open people’s
eyes to the fact there are so many things adult learners can do.
We can be more strategic, that’s our job as staff. There’s
definitely a discrepancy between teacher-tutors and mentor-tutors. With
the transcripts from our research, I listened to the language that discontinued
teacher-tutors used. They tended to use pronouns to describe the person
they worked with. They said “he” or “she” rather
than the person’s name. When the mentor-tutors talked, they included
themselves in the learning description: “My learner is this..”, “we..”, “our…”.
Their language was collaborative.
had another question about findings, about culture and class issues.
When you did the survey of the students, they said they wanted
Aboriginal tutors. Was that all students or just Aboriginal students?
it was all adult learners. We found that when we asked Aboriginal learners
in our program, they said it did not matter whether or not they have
an Aboriginal tutor as long as the content and material reflects who
they are. I believe that’s the most important thing. This was important
when we looked at how we broaden our group of tutors. As a mainly white
female organization we tend to draw on our social network in the community
for new volunteers. We need to look at how we market ourselves. We want
to find ways of reaching the Aboriginal community more effectively.
Literacies: Asking “Do
you love to read?” might not be the best way to find those tutors.
unexpected things did you learn from doing the research?
thing I really enjoyed was learning about literacy at the international
level. I came from an education background, then moved into community-based
work. I need to know the international connection, to see that how that
folds into the province’s definition and how that definition fits
into our network and our own mission.
I also enjoyed the literature review. One part that really stuck with
me was reading Kangisser, who talked about the prevailing myth that volunteers
are cost-free. That myth continues to be generated. It was reassuring
to learn that. We can be thankful for people stepping up to volunteer,
but we need to know our boundaries. Volunteering is a job. Just because
you give your time, you don’t have the right to do whatever you
want when you want.
Also, I enjoyed reading about how relationships are the most important
thing in any workplace. We knew that relationships were central in tutoring.
Now we know that follow-up calls are vital. It’s a huge commitment
for READ Saskatoon to call all volunteers and learners every six to eight
weeks. We didn’t know how important those calls were until they
were highlighted in the research. It’s nice to know. We’re
doing most things really well, but we can make them even better.
The findings about recruiting, training and supporting volunteers are
not the only significant results of this research. The report’s
conclusion includes several suggestions about the mission, structure
and funding of programs that use volunteers. For example, the report
suggests that, to address literacy, programs should “[a]dopt a
philosophy that is conducive to building collaborative relationships” and “[m]ove
away from deficit models.”
The report also suggests that programs “[r]eflect on the impact
that year-to-year funding has on the board, staff, volunteers,
and clients of the volunteer organization…Re-examine
administration responsibilities and time allocation; and Ensure
adequate funding and staffing capacity to meet the mandate” (p.
Building Capacity to Attract and Retain Literacy Volunteers is
available at www.nald.ca/readsask/pubs/attract/attract.pdf.
Kangisser. Dianne (1985). Pioneers and New Frontiers: The role of
volunteers in combating adult illiteracy. New York: Business Council
for Effective Literacy.
Examining Unpaid Literacy Work
by Maria Moriarty
Volunteers form a large part of the adult literacy workforce in Canada.
Perhaps it is not too much to say that community-based literacy, as we
know it, could not continue without the scores of volunteers who work
as tutors, fundraisers and members of volunteer boards. Literacy agencies
spend many hours recruiting, training, managing and coordinating volunteers.
Many literacy workers entered the field as volunteers and, in many jurisdictions,
individuals who have been volunteers are given preference in hiring.
Despite the importance of volunteering to the field, there has been
little or no systematic examination of the role of volunteers in adult
literacy, nor of the tangle of issues, needs, benefits and motivations
of volunteering. Much of the Canadian, and American, literature on volunteers
focuses on coordination and management rather than on consideration of
volunteer practices and their impacts in programs.
One exception is a 1998 paper published by Montreal’s Centre for
Literacy. In “Behaviour and Beliefs of Volunteer Literacy Tutors” Catherine
Hambly discusses how volunteers’ attitudes affect literacy organizations
and learners. This case study asked tutors why they did not keep
in touch with the literacy organization for whom they volunteered.
Hambly found “a
link from an apparent contradiction—that tutors desire to help
their learners but are complacent about their learners' progress—to
a belief system shared by these tutors...[that] underlies their
disinclination to receive support from the organization.” The paper
explores four fundamental beliefs, and concludes that more research
is needed. It also points out that “[u]nfortunately, volunteer
organizations often lack the financial and personnel resources necessary
for research projects.” The full report is available at: www.centreforliteracy.qc.ca/Publications/wkpaper3/cover.htm.
An article published in 2005 provides a nuanced and comprehensive discussion
of the use of volunteers in the United States. In “Volunteers in
Adult Literacy Education” (Review of Adult Learning and Literacy
5, 125-154), Jennifer A. Sandlin and Ralf St. Clair note that the use
of volunteers in adult literacy is so thoroughly accepted that the implications
and issues surrounding it remain relatively unquestioned. Through a literature
review and interviews, the authors identify the key issues and controversies
surrounding the use of volunteers in adult literacy. They propose that
there is a need for careful research to examine the roles and activities
of adult literacy volunteers, and to arrive at a deeper understanding
of the use of volunteers as literacy educators and in other support roles
in adult literacy. You can read a summary of this paper at www.ncsall.net/index.php?id=772.