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Volunteer Engagement: Changing Our Volunteer Culture

San José Public Library
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Innovation Summary

San José Public Library changed its volunteer program so community members can use their skills and talents in higher level volunteer service. This better meets the needs of today's volunteers, better aligns with the needs of the library, and brings enhanced and expanded library services to the community.

Problem Statement

San José Public Library's (SJPL) volunteer management program was outdated; no longer effectively meeting the needs of potential volunteers or staff and not providing maximum benefit to library customers. Under the traditional volunteer management model, nearly anyone interested in volunteering was accepted. Volunteers were given specific tasks to complete, many of them clerical, and told exactly how the task should be accomplished. Further, volunteers were expected to commit to ongoing service. A "good" volunteer was defined by the number of years they volunteered. Unfortunately, this presented limited options for potential volunteers and staff often felt like they had to create work to keep volunteers busy. There is a growing understanding in the field of volunteerism that today's adult volunteers want experiences where they can use their skills and know-how, make an impact in their community, and have flexibility in their volunteer schedule. They want to use their volunteer experiences to leave a social legacy. SJPL's volunteer program could not accommodate these volunteers, and some actually had to be turned away. It was increasingly apparent that our volunteer program was mismatched to the needs of today's volunteers as well as the library's needs!


Looking for a new volunteer program model, SJPL joined the California State Library's Get Involved: Powered by your Library initiative. The initiative focused on the volunteer engagement model which gives volunteers more responsibility to provide services and programs of greater value to the library and the community. In this model, the library defines the desired outcomes and volunteers specifically recruited for the project use their skills and knowledge to reach these goals. The goal could be a video about the library or organizing a homework support program. Outcome attainment, not just hours of service, define a successful volunteer. Bringing volunteer engagement to SJPL would mean a shift in how we thought about and worked with volunteers. To reach this target, a team of volunteers and staff representing a cross section of the library developed a multi-phase training program and an ongoing support system. First, at an all staff in-service, the team used skits, panel presentations, and small group activities to overview the model's concepts and how engaged volunteers could benefit the library. Next, branch and unit managers determined how they could champion the program so it would be successfully integrated into the library system. Each manager selected at least one, preferably two staff to serve as its Coordinators of Volunteer Engagement (COVE) members. For the final training, 36 COVE members attended six sessions of a highly interactive training on implementing volunteer engagement. Templates were created for volunteer job descriptions and agreements, interview guidelines and tools were developed, and new online recruitment tools were secured. To support full integration of the model into SJPL, a SharePoint website was created to share documents and templates throughout the organization, amass related web links, and facilitate discussions facilitated among staff. The COVE team also meets bi-monthly to share successes, ideas, and support one another.


Volunteer engagement has been successfully integrated into SJPL's volunteer program. Both staff attitudes and organizational processes have changed. Staff completed a survey during the six-week training that measured whether an organization had a volunteer management or volunteer engagement orientation. When they retook the survey six months after the training, there was a positive shift from volunteer management to volunteer engagement in all 12 indicators that were measured. Based on the survey, six months after the training, staff were 3 times more likely to design assignments specifically to reflect a wide range of skills and interests and not limit work to clerical and administrative positions than they were prior to the training (68% vs. 18%). Recently, when we wanted ESL Conversation Clubs to be volunteer-facilitated at 19 libraries, instead of recruiting individual facilitators, we first recruited three volunteers to serve as program coordinators. This team assessed the program, recommended resources, developed training, and recruited, interviewed and trained the new facilitators. They also plan to provide ongoing support to the facilitators. Volunteers have enthusiastically embraced these new service opportunities and now 62% of volunteer hours are spent in leadership roles. Volunteers organize and run homework clubs, teach citizenship classes, run weekly art programs for children, lead new and small business workshops, and provide one-to-one computer support. Intentionally matching volunteers to positions that align with their interests and skills is paying off. In a recent survey, 82% of volunteers reported that their skills and talents are well suited for their volunteer position. Further, through these positions, volunteers are making an impact in their community and we are offering expanded services. For instance, between July 1, 2011 and December 21, 2011 over 1,000 customers improved their ability to work with computers and use online resources with the help of 39 volunteer computer mentors.