Hospices Creating a Volunteer-Inclusive Culture

Categories: Education.

One thing that is standard in all hospices, regardless of size or location, is the concept of teamwork. Trained volunteers are an integral part of the hospice palliative care interdisciplinary team.

Volunteers often don’t work “normal” hours, aren’t usually present at meetings with other team members, and don’t generally have corporate email accounts or cell phones. On the other hand, they have the same things expected of them as paid staff—-documenting visits, keeping up with compliance items, and communicating relevant information to other team members.

So how do we make them truly feel that the hospice team values them? Volunteers must feel on equal footing with other team members; they should be thanked for hard work; and they should be notified when there are changes in their job duties or patient status. This also means that, like any other member of the team, they must be held accountable for their work. And this means that we must be willing to coach, counsel and mentor them; make sure they are doing a job that is appropriate for them; and that they’re equipped to do that job.

Training—for Staff and Volunteers
Think about your first months working with volunteers. There were probably things you encountered that you were not prepared to handle. For example, how did you feel the first time you had to share constructive criticism with a volunteer?

These things do not come naturally—they take knowledge, skills, and practice. So, in order for all team members to understand the dynamics of working with volunteers, the Volunteer Department should share this training. If the Volunteer Department doesn’t participate in your organization’s orientation in some manner, consider including it. If this isn’t feasible within the classroom orientation time, have new colleagues meet with their local volunteer manager as part of their in-field/on-the-job orientation. Everyone in your agency should know the golden rule, “Never waste a volunteer’s time.”

Beyond Volunteer Orientation
As members of the interdisciplinary team, volunteers must also be knowledgeable about hospice care and the patients they care for.

While a well-intentioned staff member may question a volunteer’s “need to know,” volunteers do need to know their patient’s diagnosis and progress in order to serve them appropriately. For example, a patient with dementia will communicate very differently than one who is alert and oriented. As another example, a patient’s or family’s psychosocial issues can greatly impact safety. Volunteers are in these patients’ homes, and in many cases on their own, so they need to be prepared for what they might be facing as well as provide continuity for the other team members.

This leads to the essential need to train volunteers on HIPAA and confidentiality. They should be knowledgeable about these topics just as paid staff members are, especially since a breach of confidentiality may be grounds for their termination in the same way it would be for paid staff.

Rethinking the Role of the Volunteer Department
The role of the Volunteer Department is really akin to the role of the Human Resources Department in that volunteer coordinators recruit, interview, train, and assign volunteers.

All members of the interdisciplinary team, on the other hand, are the volunteers’ co-workers and should be responsible for the day-to-day communication with volunteers. Staff is expected to update the entire team (including volunteers) about changes with their patients. Volunteers, in turn, are expected to call staff members directly with any questions or concerns about patients. The Volunteer Department does not need to be involved in the communication unless the job description of the volunteer (i.e. the care plan) is being changed. This expedites communication.

This very issue of communication reinforces the importance of holding training sessions for hospice staff  about working with volunteers, as we noted earlier. This training will help everyone understand their responsibilities within the context of the organization’s structure.

During these training sessions (or in any communications for that matter), volunteer coordinators and managers should be careful about how they refer to volunteers if they want to cultivate a volunteer-inclusive culture. For example, these individuals are not the volunteer coordinator’s volunteers—but the entire team’s volunteers. This was one of the important takeaways from NHPCO’s 2012 Volunteer Leadership Virtual Conference held last summer.
“Sandi Huster [the NCHPP Volunteer/Volunteer Management Section leader] pointed out this distinction during her presentation and it really hit home,” said one conference attendee. “During my 18 years in volunteer management, I’ve always spoken about ‘my volunteers.’ Yet, as she so aptly pointed out, volunteers are members of our care team, and the entire team should embrace them.”

Another valuable insight came from Gary Gardia’s presentation about working with volunteers when he shared a list of rights and responsibilities. Unlike the typical Volunteer Bill of Rights that many programs may refer to, his included rights and responsibilities for both staff and volunteers in their work together on behalf of hospice.

“Gary’s session made me realize that we were missing part of the picture,” said a conference attendee. “Hospice staff must understand the role of volunteers as well as their own role in order to be effective.”

Final Thoughts

Once volunteers feel as if they’re part of the hospice team, there are other ways to truly increase their impact by further incorporating them into the organization’s culture.

Often, the first phone call that a prospective volunteer receives lets the volunteer know what opportunities are available. For example, during the initial calls that Tidewell Hospice makes, volunteers are asked what skills they are proficient in and whether they’d be willing to share those skills with the organization  if such opportunities arise.

Reframing the initial conversation in this way can open doors to skill sets that may be undiscovered! Volunteers may have a wealth of knowledge and experience that they are willing to gift to our organizations. The challenge is not only to integrate volunteers as valuable team members, but to create new roles for them based on their skills and experience.


Stacy Groff serves as the director of volunteer services for Tidewell Hospice in Sarasota, FL. She holds a Master of Nonprofit Management degree from the University of Central Florida and serves on the NCHPP Volunteer/Volunteer Management Section Steering Committee.

Anne Myers-Richards has worked in hospice for 13 years and is the volunteer supervisor for Fairview Home Care and Hospice in Minneapolis, MN. She also serves on the NCHPP Volunteer/Volunteer Management Section Steering Committee.

Hospice Volunteer Program Resource Manual, part of NHPCO’s Professional Development and Resource Series.


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