Not sure how to change up your volunteer program? Talk to your volunteers.

volunteer-focus-groups-th-blueWhen Amy Whary got promoted at the Tel Hai retirement community in Honey Brook, PA, she decided to shake things up a bit.

Amy is the Director of Volunteer Services for Tel Hai. When she was promoted from the assistant position last year, she inherited a program that had operated in status quo mode for over 15 years. “We repeated the same practices over and over without questioning whether they were relevant anymore. I heard a lot of ‘that’s the way we do things’ to explain how we operate,” Amy observed.

“I found the program boring – and I suspected that the volunteers might feel that way, too. But they had never been asked.”

So, before making any changes, Amy initiated something that had never been done at Tel Hai:

She organized focus groups of volunteers and asked them what they wanted.

That was significant for Tel Hai, because the residents make up the majority of the volunteer force. The members of her focus group were volunteers and clients.  Gathering volunteer feedback gave Amy the intel she needed to build a strong volunteer base and better serve the community.

Besides the great results (which we’ll talk about in a moment), Amy developed a process for her focus groups that contributed to their success.


Amy Whary, Tel Hai’s Director of Volunteer Services for Tel Hai, watched her program grow after acting on feedback from her focus groups.

First, Amy was thoughtful about how she organized her focus groups. She wanted to ensure that she consulted with a broad mix of volunteers with a variety of experiences. She ended up creating five different groups, with volunteers representing:

  • Different levels of care,
  • Different residential neighborhoods
  • Non-resident volunteers from the community
  • Longtime volunteers
  • New volunteers

Second, Amy got super-clear on which parts of the volunteer program needed improvement. She limited her questions to just three areas: recognition, recruitment, and communication, and targeted all of her questions to those areas.

She asked her groups questions like, “Do you think we are visible enough to you? or “Are you hearing about it when we have a volunteer position to fill?”

Third, Amy noted every objection that the groups uncovered and took action on all of them. For example:

  • It turned out that the volunteer program was not visible. Residents were not aware of all of the volunteer opportunities. They wanted to know more and hear more from about the volunteer program and see the information posted in multiple places.

Amy acted on this feedback by adding two bulletin boards for posting weekly opportunities and sends out a seasonal newsletter. She identified other areas in the community where she could leave printed materials about the program and make it less of an effort for residents to find her.

  • As for recognition, most of the volunteers did not want a big annual banquet for appreciation. They preferred smaller social events that took place throughout the year.

Amy now offers quarterly get-togethers that are just for fun – like a fall social with hors d’oeuvres and snacks, or movie matinees.  “We watched ‘Frozen’ one time – everyone started singing along to the songs.”

These small changes lead to a major outcome

The number of volunteers at Tel Hai is on the increase. Amy now finds that “people who were not volunteering before are getting involved. They will walk by my office, see an opportunity posted, and stick their head in to ask about it.”

One reason Amy got great feedback is because her volunteers trust her.  “I’m very open and vocal with my volunteers, and they know they can be honest with me.  Some people treat the elderly as fragile, but I don’t do that.” She shows them respect without condescension.

She also makes it a point to give every volunteer her full attention.  “It’s tempting to pass someone in the hall and say ‘thanks’ as you keep walking along. But I don’t do that. I stop, plant my feet, face the volunteer, and have a conversation.”

At Tel Hai, it turns out that serving the community means creating community. And a strong community listen closely to its members.


HAVE YOU considered coaching? Amy Whary kickstarted her focus group concept in a Twenty Hats coaching call.  You, too, can get the encouragement, structure, and support you need to move forward on your great ideas. To find out more, email Elisa at


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This vol engagement pro used a powerful #volmgmt practice to strengthen & expand her program, @THNonprofit