Special Report: Recruiting, retaining hospice volunteers

Hospice creates volunteer ambassador to spread good news about hospice care

Ambassadors donate hundreds of hours each month

A regional hospice's community educators were challenged to cover 35 counties across two states, making it difficult to get the word out about hospice to health care providers and the community. So hospice managers decided to do something a little different to meet the need and created a position for volunteers who have skills in community outreach and public speaking.

Now, there are more than 150 volunteer ambassadors, which is what the outreach volunteers are called. They serve 11 branch offices at Covenant Hospice Inc., whose corporate office is in Pensacola, FL, says Sandra L. Huster, BA, director of volunteer programs for Covenant Hospice in Dothan, AL.

Volunteer ambassadors visit doctor's offices and speak with front desk staff, dropping off hospice literature; they speak to civic groups, faith congregations, and senior centers, educating people about Covenant Hospice, recruiting more hospice volunteers, and they represent the hospice at senior fairs and health fairs, Huster says.

"Out of the Dothan office there are 10 trained ambassadors," Huster says. "They meet monthly with community educators to plan and organize, and they have their own tote bags and materials."

Huster estimates that volunteer ambassadors each provide outreach services for eight to 20 hours per month, and they donate their mileage. Hard data are not yet available, but the hospice has seen an increase in volunteers, inquiry calls, and referrals since starting the program, she says.

"We piloted the program in Dothan and saw an increase in inquiries about hospice and referrals, and we knew it was something we wanted to share with all of our offices," Huster says.

Many of the ambassador volunteers are retired professionals, who spent their careers in work where they used related skills, including retired teachers, non-profit directors, medical professionals, and public relations personnel, she says.

"We had one woman who had been a director of volunteer programs for a large medical center, and her whole life's work was spent running large volunteer programs," Huster says. "We approached her with this idea and asked if she would be the team leader for a group of ambassadors, help us recruit and train and make assignments."

The woman accepted the role and has been key to the success of the program in Dothan.

The volunteers have developed strong loyalty to the hospice and the program, and they've bonded socially, often having ambassador volunteer lunch gatherings.

"Many see this as a chance to use their marketing skills, people skills, and speaking skills," Huster says. "They're needed and very viable, and they have a feeling of success about what they're doing."

The two-year-old ambassador program has had very low turnover, and it's enabled the hospice to attract volunteers who are interested in doing work that is outside of direct patient contact, Huster says.

"We really want to include young people in this too, and we are working with college and high school students who have an interest in this kind of experience," Huster says. "Several offices have access to college students in its town, and all of the offices are working with high school students who might volunteer as part of a youth group in a congregation or perhaps as a service group in a high school."

Volunteers coordinate the ambassador program, assist with training and education, and have taken ownership and pride in what they're doing, Huster notes.

"Educators share the big picture of what is happening, what are the challenges and needs we have now, and they help the ambassadors see how their work is part of the big picture and mission of the organization," Huster says.

Volunteer ambassadors receive two hours of additional training, including information about hospice admissions, specific cancer and non-cancer diagnoses, how hospices are reimbursed, and how Covenant is a not-for-profit hospice and will provide hospice services regardless of a patient's ability to pay, Huster says.

"The other message we wanted to teach our ambassadors and have them share with people is how to ask for hospice early in a person's end of life care," Huster says.

"We train our ambassadors to say that anyone can call and ask about hospice care for their loved ones," Huster adds. "Our ambassadors encourage early referrals and early admission to hospice care."

Volunteer ambassadors wear a Covenant Hospice badge when they hand out brochures and referral information.

"Each month, our corporate office provides talking points about our services, and we ask the ambassadors to help deliver these to doctors' offices," Huster says.

"Our educators are out on a regular basis too, but it expands their outreaches and increases the frequency of visits, helping to identify people who need information that our educators had never thought about before."

Ambassadors have their own ideas about outreach, and the educators listen to them, asking them where they travel in their daily lives and where they might meet someone who needs to hear about end of life care, Huster says.

A volunteer ambassador program is fairly easy to start once the training curriculum is established, Huster says.

Such curriculum could include the following:

  • What is hospice care?
  • What's unique about your hospice?
  • How can someone access hospice care?
  • How can someone support your hospice?

"You can tap your existing volunteers and get it going with those folks," Huster suggests. "It's not expensive to start when you already have materials available for community outreach."

While the idea of having volunteers assisting with community outreach and hospice marketing services might be a novel one for many hospices, it can be one of the best ways to promote hospice care, Huster notes.

"The volunteer ambassadors say that people are amazed that they were there giving their time to do this and were not getting paid for it," Huster says. "With the program, we're marketing and educating and inviting people to volunteer."

Volunteer ambassadors are given a script they can refer to, but the words can be their own. They are encouraged to make the ask at the end, saying, "I'm so glad you let me be here today; now let me tell you how you can be involved with hospice," Huster says.

"The best recruiter of volunteers is another volunteer," she adds. "We see a wonderful recruitment result of their efforts."