Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit with the talented staff at the The Medicare Rights Center in New York City. Heather Bates, Vice President of Client Services and Program Management, and Susan Batkin, Director of Helpline Operations and Volunteer Management, took me on a tour of their national Consumer Helpline.
It’s an impressive operation, not only for the depth and quality of the services they provide but also for the way they go about it -- their volunteer outreach and onboarding process attracts a steady stream of highly-skilled volunteers, and they’ve begun to track and analyze the community value they offer. It’s good stuff we can all learn from. So, I thought I’d interview them about the secrets of their success and share their thoughts with you. My interview is in two parts.
The Helpline is a free service, staffed by a mix of volunteers and paid staff who assist Medicare beneficiaries and their families with questions about their options, benefits, rights, protections, and financial help they may qualify for. The Helpline assists over 12,000 callers on average, both in Spanish and in English, each year. Approximately 60% of the counseling services are provided by paid staff and 40% by unpaid volunteers.
Part I: Volunteer Onboarding
1) You mentioned that you usually get 20-30 people at each of your quarterly volunteer Open Houses. I think it’s a pretty savvy move to book your orientations ahead of time and conduct them with groups. It must save a lot of time. Many volunteer programs are struggling to generate your level of interest. Where do you advertise your open houses and how do you account for the fact that over 100 people a year want to join?
We primarily recruit retired professionals through online websites such as Volunteer Match, Idealist, the NYC Mayor’s Office and some other smaller, local sites in addition to word-of-mouth referrals. It is expected that they will have to use our database so they need to be computer savvy. We advertise our Open House through all of these avenues and we reach out to major universities to attract graduate and undergraduate students that will eventually be going to medical school or pursuing master’s degrees in public health/public administration. Smart students want shore up their graduate school applications, especially those entering in to public health, medicine or law. Volunteer work helps them do that.
Potential volunteers are attracted to our organization for a number of reasons. First, healthcare is a very important issue – especially in the current budget debate. There are smart people out there eager to use their intellectual curiosity for the greater good that have a great deal of enthusiasm and desire to contribute their time and talents to an organization working in this arena. These folks want to do more than stuff envelopes and route calls. Believe it or not, it’s not easy to find volunteer work that applies the counseling and problem-solving skills in the way Medicare counseling does. In addition, having an “Open House” takes the pressure off of people to make any kind of commitment before they are ready. At the Open House we tell people about the volunteer opportunities available across the organization. We have volunteers in development, marketing, peer education, direct client services and volunteers who help process low-income benefits applications. We also tell them about the ongoing support, training and supervision they will receive. We also highlight the commitment required for each volunteer role. The next day we send people an application via email. If they are interested in pursuing the opportunity, they will fill out the application. There’s no hard sell here.
2) Medicare is a complicated topic. You mentioned that your volunteers go through an initial boot-camp style training and then work with mentors, but they’re ready to work solo very quickly. Can you tell me a little bit more about it and how it fits into your entire onboarding process? And, how do you keep volunteers from becoming discouraged with the amount of study that’s required?
During recruitment we are very clear about the amount of time and effort it takes to become an effective Medicare counselor. Aside from having the right temperament and a desire and ability to absorb new information, to become a helpline counselor one needs to participate in a 12 hour live initial training and commit to one four hour helpline shift each week for a minimum of 6 months. Through our database we track the attendance of our volunteers also, and we have found that on average, they attend 60% of their shifts. This helps us figure out the volunteer to staff counseling ratio in order to keep our live-call rate up. Those who cannot or do not want to engage in a volunteer opportunity that requires this much time generally do not go further than the Open House, or keep us in mind for a later date. Regular attendance is important and our volunteers come to feel similarly, because this is how they learn Medicare in a stratified way. It is also how they build relationships over time. We have them report in if they cannot make their shift and they are very accountable for their time.
In addition to the trainings mentioned above, we use different strategies to help people master the material. We have internal webinars recorded by staff which keeps information and training flowing about all kinds of Medicare topics. We created research challenges they have to solve on their own. We give them a series of questions that they have to research and find the answers to using our online Medicare database called Medicare Interactive (www.MedicareInteractive.org). Medicare Interactive is how our volunteers find answers while on a helpline shift, it is also available for free to the public.
For example, every month during a volunteer’s regularly scheduled shift, we have an update meeting to inform volunteers about Medicare changes or content to review. Additionally, we have a monthly newsletter just for volunteers, featuring topics of importance. In addition, helpline supervisors are available during each helpline shift to assist a volunteer in navigating a call, researching information and answering complicated questions as well as document what occurred during a call in our database. In general, there are tremendous opportunities for cross-pollination between staff and volunteers, which keeps Medicare material fresh and frequent. Often our volunteers, many of whom are retired, report that they like the intergenerational experience of working with younger staff.
2) Your office is located in New York’s garment district, a few blocks from Times Square. Since most parking is at a premium in the city, I’m assuming most volunteers take public transport. Do you find this is a barrier for them? And, if so, how do you handle it?
NYC has lots of transportation options. Almost all volunteers take public transportation to get to our office. Since public transportation is accessible, this does not create barriers for people.
4) In terms of volunteer retention, you guys are really starting to analyze the attrition numbers at each step of the onboarding process. I applaud you! What have you learned and have you made any tweaks to your program to realize better retention at specific steps along the way?
Absolutely. One thing we have learned is that if your priority is to provide the highest quality of service to clients, it is extremely important to try to ensure a good fit between the volunteer and your organization. We have prioritized volunteer management role organizationally. It is a full-time position to recruit, train, supervise and manage our volunteers. We have developed our criteria for increased volunteer participation through surveying our volunteers, interviewing volunteers to determine what they need in order to contribute and frequent two-way communication. Every organization has to determine for itself the specific role that they are asking volunteers to perform. Once you determine that, you have to dedicate the time and effort it requires to support volunteers to carry out that role. If you don’t have adequate supports, people will not stay.
5) Finally, my favorite question of all -- What’s one piece of advice you would give someone who is just starting out as a volunteer coordinator? Maybe something you wish you would have known, but had to learn on the fly?
The name of the game is systems. Have a dedicated process for recruitment, training, ongoing support – this is essential. At Medicare Rights’ our volunteers are aware of how valuable they are to our organization because we place a great deal of emphasis on training and supporting them. The idea that volunteers are “free” is simply not true. An organization must dedicate resources to developing the supports and infrastructure to train and retain smart, enthusiastic passionate people who are excited about your mission.
Well said, Susan and Healther! Thanks for sharing your expertise with my readers! Stay tuned for Part II: Using Metrics to Track and Communicate Value.