Alan Elia Jr. can spot a potential blue-chip volunteer from a mile away.
It’s the mom or dad who hangs around the rink, looking for that one Mite who can’t seem to get his skates tied. Or helps a rookie hockey parent figure out how to put all that bulky equipment on such a small child.
The Right jobs Bring In The Right Volunteers
By Jim Leitner
Paul Furman learned the keys to maintaining a solid volunteer base very early in his administrative hockey career.
Create meaningful assignments for volunteers, give them all the information they need and thank them for their efforts. They’ll feel appreciated, and, more importantly, they’ll want to come back.
“You really want to make the job as easy as possible for them,” said Furman, who received USA Hockey’s prestigious Wm. Thayer Tutt Award for his 40 years of volunteering in his hometown association of Oswego, N.Y., and at the state level.
“A lot of the things we take for granted, a volunteer might not know. If you take the time to train them and make sure they’re prepared for what you ask them to do, the better the chance of them being successful.”
Furman served as state tournament director for 24 years and compiled a list of most frequently asked questions. That list not only made volunteers feel more comfortable in the task at hand, it saved his staff the trouble of retraining people year after year.
Volunteers will stay involved if they feel an organization is well organized and if their tasks fit their individual talents and interests.
“The heart and soul of successful volunteer management is creating meaningful assignments for them,” said Susan J. Ellis, whose Philadelphia-based firm, Energize, specializes in volunteerism. Her web site, Energizeinc.com includes more than 1,400 pages of material that can be applied to any non-profit organization.
“Clarity of roles is so important, and the lack of it is the biggest reason volunteerism falls apart. People are so time stressed these days. They need to know the parameters of what you’re asking them to do, and they certainly don’t want a bait-and-switch.”
Ellis encourages organizations to place volunteers in positions suited to their skill sets. Then, they must be properly trained.
“Usually, we ask someone to be an assistant coach before they become a head coach. The same should be true with volunteers,” Ellis said.
“If you set up a quality training program and partner them with someone who knows what to do, chances are you’ll keep them longer and get better quality, more efficient work from them.”
During his four years as president of the Niagara Jr. Purple Eagles, Elia has overseen growth and player retention in his Western New York youth program. And he credits a dedicated group of volunteers, the lifeblood of any non-profit youth sports organization, for helping the program of 850 players stay on solid footing.
“If you hang around a rink long enough or you hang around young people long enough, the volunteers jump right out at you,” Elia said. “You can tell by the way they’re acting that they want to help you. They just need to be asked, so you have to jump out and seize them and let them know what they can do to help your program.”
With every parent’s time at a premium, the days of true volunteerism seem to be slipping away. Many youth hockey organizations have been somewhat forced to replace them with paid staff or compensate “volunteer” parents with reduced ice fees for their children.
Elia doesn’t care for that trend. Instead, he helps coordinate a smart, efficient program for volunteers.
Organizations need volunteers, because it keeps fees down. And volunteers want to help, because they have a personal stake in the organization, their skills suit the common good, they want to make a difference or they simply enjoy being around people with similar interests.
“We had an attorney join our board this year, and he was absolutely flabbergasted by the amount of work our volunteers do,” Elia said.
“Every one of our volunteers is there because they have a passion for what they’re doing. Any successful program starts with good, quality coaching. But you also have to have dedicated volunteers to make it happen.”
This fall, Niagara’s introductory program attracted 190 players who wanted to give the sport a free trial run. More impressively, a whopping 62 adults signed up to help the kids learn how to play.
“People like Alan get others to help out because they have great personalities, they’re young and energetic, they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty, they help with the jobs most people don’t like to do, and, most of all, they respect others for what they can offer,” said Janice Cavaretta, the executive director for the Western New York Amateur Hockey League.
“He is absolutely the best to work with. Very organized, precise, community centered, loves kids and can gather a crew of volunteers at a moment’s notice. The bottom line is, it’s the people, not the organization, that keep volunteers.”
When it comes to running the Jr. Purple Eagles, Elia applies many of the same principles he uses to maintain his family business, Sevenson Environmental Services, as one of the country’s leading environmental cleanup contractors. He treats people with respect, he doesn’t ask anyone to do a task he wouldn’t perform himself, and he has a detailed organizational plan.
“Even if a volunteer can only give you two minutes, well, that’s two minutes you didn’t have before,” said Elia. “You can’t toss them around, and you can’t ask them to do something they really don’t want to do. You work with them instead of having them work for you. That’s the way I run my business, and people appreciate it when they sense you’re a part of what’s going on.”
Like most volunteers, Paul Furman Sr. began donating his time because his son became involved in hockey. Now, 40 years later, Furman still gives back to the youth program in Oswego, N.Y.
Because of his volunteering, the New York State Amateur Hockey Association champions receive the Paul Furman Trophy each year. In June, USA Hockey honored him with the Wm. Thayer Tutt Award for his selfless dedication to the enhancement of the game at the grassroots level.
“I’m kind of an introvert, but, once I got involved, I really liked the work, I liked working with the kids, and I liked the people around me,” said Furman, who directed state tournaments for 24 years. “The most important thing was dealing with people fairly. If you treated people that way, they’d treat you the same way.
“Volunteers are so important to making things run smoothly, so you have to treat them with respect. People want to be informed. Even if you give them an awful lot of information, they appreciate it because it helps them be prepared. I always sent them a thank-you letter to show them how much I appreciated their work, and I always asked for their input on how to make things better in the future.”
Volunteers are out there. They just need defined, do-able tasks and some small token of appreciation.
That’s what turns the mom or dad looking for that one Mite who can’t seem to get his skates tied into a treasured member of an organization.