Like any working relationship, there is always the potential for volunteer and managerial conflicts on a wide range of issues. Even with a well-planned recruitment process, some volunteers are not suited for a job in the service industry, or aren’t well-versed in the technical aspects of exercise instruction.

Sometimes people see things in terms of right and wrong with no room for flexibility or individual variation. Sensible, strong and sensitive leadership should address issues such as these during workshops and the training process. Role-play exercises enacting some of these situations can be particularly effective in demonstrating practical solutions to problems. These role-play workshops should be open to all employees of the fitness center, as they provide valuable insights for all staff members and help reinforce the team concept.

Another potential problem occurs when volunteers begin to overestimate the extent of their knowledge. This can be a problem if they begin advising members in areas of which they only have basic knowledge (i.e., injury prevention and rehabilitation). They also might consciously or inadvertently infringe on the fitness specialist’s role, which can lead to internal staff friction. Clear delineation on exactly where an instructor’s expertise and role within the club begins and ends should be explained during the training process and constantly reinforced, albeit diplomatically, by the management team.

Evaluating the volunteer program

Evaluating the success of a volunteer program is more than looking at the money saved in wages. If the standard of volunteer classes is so poor that members join another club or stop attending, the money saved is worthless. If there is a drop in attendance at the club or in one particular class, the volunteer program should be thoroughly scrutinized for weaknesses.

To gauge the effectiveness of a volunteer program, constant membership feedback is needed. Surveys, focus groups and informal meetings with members are vital for any meaningful evaluation. Ask about the professionalism of the group exercise instructors, the variety of classes offered, overall approval rating of the club, etc.

Not all volunteer programs need to be as extensive as the World Bank’s. Volunteers can be used on an emergency-substitution basis, for non-peak hours, or for selected activities in which a volunteer may have the necessary skills and teaching qualifications (martial arts, mind/body programming, dance classes, etc.).

Whatever its role, the volunteer program should fulfill its mission. If it serves as a source for last-minute substitutions, then it should do that. If, like at the World Bank, it is an integral part of the program, every effort should be made to develop the program and the individuals involved. Instructors should be constantly reevaluated for their teaching and class presentation skills. This can be done by the aerobics director or by a consultant employed especially for evaluation purposes.

The way of the new millennium?

The future of volunteer programs will be influenced by many factors. In cities such as Washington, D.C., where unemployment is currently very low, it is increasingly difficult to find instructors to teach classes early in the morning and during lunch hours. This is where volunteer programs are invaluable. Alternatively, if companies continue the trend to become leaner and meaner, people’s work pressures may make it difficult for them to find time to participate in a volunteer program.

Incorporating a volunteer instructor program into your center may seem like a radical step. It is not a simple process; it requires a good deal of planning, strong leadership and management support.

However, if your club is willing to put in the time, volunteer programs can be a great way to save money and add variety and flexibility to your group exercise activities.

Who knows, it may even lessen your stress when the 6 p.m. power-step instructor’s car breaks down.

Like any aspect of your club’s operation, a volunteer program should be constantly reevaluated to measure whether it fulfills its mission and is a success for your organization.