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Using the developmental relationships framework to empower volunteers

By Jeremy Freeman

Volunteers and 4-H youth holding 4-H clover signs
For the past few years, the research around developmental relationships has formed a backbone for guiding youth development practices. The research has surfaced numerous times on our Youth Development Insight blog. Yet, the five domains of developmental relationships (outlined below), have applications even beyond our work with young people.

If we hold up the framework of developmental relationships to our volunteer management approaches, we'll find that many of the key elements that strengthen youth-adult relationships can also empower our volunteers.

Megan Franks, a 4-H Youth Development colleague in Louisiana, notes in her article titled "Creating a volunteer program that empowers volunteers", that empowered volunteers often become more involved in the organization and provide greater impact. However, she adds that many volunteer management practices are formal, rigid, and don’t allow for shared power.  

Many of the empowerment strategies that Megan shares align closely to developmental relationships research, which makes me wonder...what would it look like to build strong and empowered volunteers using a developmental relationships framework? Here are a few suggestions:

Express care

  • Get to know your volunteers outside of their role. Send them a birthday card, or celebrate an anniversary.
  • Check in on them at unpredictable times. Being noticed and cared for when it’s not expected builds trust and a genuine sense of support.

Challenge growth

  • Find ways to grow their own skills through research and training.
  • Set clear expectations and work together to ensure the priorities are upheld.

Provide support

  • Ensure that the time commitment for their role is meeting their needs.
  • Work closely to identify barriers to their service and tackle them together.

Share power

  • Create formal and informal ways to solicit feedback about their volunteer experience.
  • Work collaboratively to develop programs using the skills and knowledge each party brings to the table.

Expand possibilities

  • Share the impact of their service regularly.
  • Push them to try new things and take their service further.

By using a developmental relationships framework alongside our volunteer management practices, we can ensure that we are leading our volunteers with our heart and our head.

In what ways do you empower volunteers? What aspects of the developmental relationship framework do you see as critical in fostering strong and empowering volunteer relationships?

-- Jeremy Freeman, Extension educator

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