mentor and volunteer

By applying design process themes to volunteer recruitment and program management, I successfully helped to jumpstart 40 volunteers’ design careers.

Scope: 3 months
Methods: Project management, idea generation
Role: Solo project with input from team of 30 designers mentors.
Tools: Omnigraffle, diary studies, Google Forms

Background

Problem

Running volunteer programs can be tough work, but someone’s gotta do it! There’s often more to do than capacity allows, and the varying paces of program demands and personal schedules can lead to unstable internal structures. The ad-hoc nature of many volunteer programs often leads to lack of strategy around finding the right volunteers, unclear team structures, and inconsistent communication between programs and volunteers.

I volunteered at Organization (name redacted) as a coordinator of a program where newer designers (“volunteers”) paired up with more senior visual designers (“mentors”) to home their design skills while working on volunteer projects for other nonprofit organizations. Because we were working with 40 volunteers during this cohort, it became critical to find a consistent structure to

  • Streamline volunteer screening and recruitment

  • Optimize volunteer management and assessment

  • Elicit volunteer feedback to implement for future cohorts

Solution

In an effort to optimize the program in these ways, I decided to implement the overarching design process themes of user screening, collaborative ideation, evaluation, and iteration. When I used these themes to inspire the development of a volunteer program at Organization (name redacted), I was able to see how useful it could be for the volunteers, the design team onto which they were onboarding, and the organization itself.

Process

  • Problem exploration: Map the opportunities

  • Focus #1: Optimize the user screening process

  • Focus #2: Design a program structure for our team

  • Focus #3: Test process by managing the volunteers and mentors

  • Reflect: Evaluate outcomes and plan iterative next steps

Persona

Before embarking on this explorative project, I used my notes from the previous summer to create a volunteer persona to keep in mind during this project to help me remain user-focused.

 
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Problem Exploration: Map the Opportunities

Our design team of thirty

  • Sought opportunities to mentor volunteers

  • Wanted to better staff sub-teams with mentors of diverse skill sets

We’d onboarded mentors in the past, but never very intentionally. After talking with current and past mentors, I wanted to focus on how we could improve.

An experience map helped me identify opportunities for improvement.

An experience map helped me identify opportunities for improvement.

Often, volunteers are too green to function smoothly in a professional environment despite strong technical skills, or they wilt without strong mentorship from a more experienced designer. They’re not poised for success, so both the company and the volunteer miss out on potential. 

This was an optimal opportunity to approach these challenges and pilot an improved way to work with volunteers across sub-teams. My first task was to define the primary objectives for the program:

  • Put the volunteers’ learning first and set them up for career-long success

  • Empower our mentors to practice mentoring with quick feedback loops

I did not include a quantitative metric. While recruitment metrics can prove success of a volunteer program, I didn’t want our focus to be on that. Volunteers can be great advocates, providing more candidates for the recruitment funnel and, perhaps, returning to the organization in the future. 

Focus #1: Optimize the user screening process

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Design teams should actively participate in screening potential new employees, similar to how UX researchers screen user testing participants to ensure that the pool is diverse and appropriate. So, I encouraged the mentors to participate in recruiting and selecting potential volunteers. After all, they would know best where each volunteer would best fit, being the people who are already working on those teams every day. 

Paramount for me was diversity, due to gaps I’d identified the previous year. Because I was heavily involved in selecting the previous year’s volunteers, I was curious to learn how new approaches would impact the makeup of our volunteer applicant pool. 

Creating a Design Challenge

Along with several mentors, I helped create a new design challenge to support candidates without portfolios, and to evaluate applicants on a level playing ground. The design challenge helped to eliminate biases around projects that volunteers chose to talk about during interviews because they were all given the same project. 

Pooling Volunteer Candidates

In the past, we always interviewed a set of candidates at the same time simply because it conformed to typical school calendars. This time, we ran the pooling independent of the school schedule. This choice opened the door for volunteer applicants who weren’t necessarily restricted to a school term. 

Rewriting the Volunteer Posting

While our HR manager had always spent time ensuring that all of our postings use inclusive language, our volunteer posting needed an overhaul. I wrote drafts, and reviewed it many times with a diverse array of team members so I could adjust the language to be more inclusive and accessible. 

Creating Blind Portfolios

One of our current mentors removed identifying information, such as names and LinkedIn URLs, from the applications. This kept our conversations about the applicants pronoun-free. While it is difficult to know exactly how to measure this, this could be a choice worth exploring across the industry.

Standardizing the Rubrics

We created rubrics to help the team evaluate and talk about applicants objectively. We asked questions such as, “Did they communicate the problem for their design challenge clearly and effectively?” This objectivity led us to reconsider some candidates, despite our initial reactions.

Guiding Design Team Leads

No decision in this process was made in isolation. Roundtable discussions and pairing evaluation sessions helped us recognize and work through our unconscious biases. We talked about selecting volunteers for potential, not for perfection. This group support helped to streamline the process in a more empathetic way, and to promote diversity in selecting volunteers.

Focus #2: Design a Program structure for our team

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While the volunteer screening was ongoing, I also worked on designing a program structure that we could test with the incoming volunteer cohort.

It felt easy to find a “home” for a volunteer by matching them using their current strengths and longterm interests at the organization, as there are plenty of teams and projects. The issue is that the pool of volunteer portfolios is often all over the place and appropriate placement would be, at best, a guess. 

I recommended that the volunteers cycle through sub-teams and mentors on three-week rotations. Each volunteer would spend one cycle working with a mentor and their team, then move on to work with another mentor and their team three weeks later, for a total of four cycles over three months. 

Each mentor would assign their volunteer their own work and help them through the volunteer process by pairing. Many design roles are strongly based in skilled craftsmanship and, as a designer develops, clarifying their principles is essential to their success. This involved approach is quite time intensive, but it wields significant results in a short period of time.

This pairing approach had several benefits:

  • Volunteers learned how varied “design” can be, and weren’t pressured into making a premature decision about specialization

  • Volunteers developed a better understanding of the organization and how it functions

  • Mentors gained a holistic understanding of each volunteer's strengths and areas of improvement

  • Mentors were empowered to pass their knowledge on to volunteers and hone leadership skills for their own careers

  • First-time mentors were given space to refocus and prep before their next cycle

"The rotation program exposed me to different areas of the business, and revitalized my knowledge of design and the overall organization.”
—J.S., Volunteer

Focus #3: Test process by managing the volunteers and mentors

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The pairing cycling gave us a challenge: How could we prevent volunteers from feeling directionless as they shuffle from project to project? In a fast-paced environment, ambiguity can be fatal to a volunteer’s overall experience. To support, I served as their manager so they could have one single point of contact throughout the experience.

We asked each volunteer to journal regularly to document their experience throughout the program. We suggested that they write weekly, but we allowed them to determine what best fit for them. Mentors also journaled throughout the program.

While the volunteers’ journals provided me good insight on how they progressed through the project, the act of writing notes about their experiences gave volunteers the opportunity to reinforce learnings, expand their self-awareness, and practice retrospective thinking (reflecting on how a project went is key to iterative design thinking). This ended up being one of the most valuable aspects of the program.

“This was probably the hardest volunteer job I’ve ever had, but it was also the most motivating and exciting.” 
—P.F., Volunteer

We set up a Slack channel to provide support to the mentors, give them a space to discuss tips and ask questions, and send them feedback from their volunteers. 

At the end of each cycle, each mentor was sent a retrospective evaluation form so they could document their thoughts about their volunteer’s experience. These forms were the foundation of each volunteer’s assessment, providing them an artifact of their time at the organization. Mentors attended a breakfast after all cycles were complete to talk about the volunteers’ performances and to determine which ones would be offered long-term volunteer roles in the organization. 

Reflect: Evaluate outcomes and plan iterative next steps

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As the cohort’s summer winded down, we studied volunteers’ and mentors’ journals, surveyed volunteers for feedback, reviewed evaluation forms, and analyzed behavioral observation notes to determine how we could iterate on the program for next year’s cohort.

The organization’s internal team was pleased with the new volunteer process, and I’m proud of how the pilot went. I definitely could not have led this project without the support of our wonderful mentors, our HR team, and, most of all, the volunteers themselves.

“This is definitely the most intentional and articulated volunteer program I’ve seen here at [Organization].”
—E.M., Mentor

While this pilot was successful, we identified areas where we could improve next time: longer and fewer cycles, more time during the final selection process, and more one-on-one time between mentors and volunteers.

“Coming here after deciding to change career paths really reinforced the reality that my past skills are still relevant to my new design career. I was treated with respect and I learned a ton. I will take these lessons with me for the rest of my career.”
—L.S., Volunteer

Of the 40 volunteers, 80% found full-time design work within 6 months of the program’s completion, and 100% found full-time design work within 1 year of program completion. This was a significant leap from the previous year’s overall 70% success rate. While I appreciated the excitement of practicing my design knowledge in this unique way, my biggest reward was knowing that the project was tangibly successful in helping jumpstart the volunteers’ design careers. I look forward to iterating upon these processes next year, and hopefully expanding the program’s capacity through positive reputation and word of mouth.