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3 Ways to Be More Respectful of Your Volunteers’ Time (And Help Retain Them in Your Organization)

Dorothee Racette

People give their time – their most valuable asset – to support your organization, because they believe they are making a meaningful and lasting contribution to a specific cause. In addition to performing much needed work, volunteers are also an organization’s most reliable promoters. With volunteering at a 10-year low, deliberate volunteer management is essential to keep this enthusiasm alive.

Such management efforts have three key aspects: the environment where you want volunteers to work, meetings, and leveraging existing expertise.

1. Work environment and clear expectations

Above all, volunteers need clarity to be effective in their assigned place of work. Set up work environments where volunteers can function with minimal frustration. That includes the necessary tools, supplies, and checklists along with plenty of practical instructions. Be sure to (repeatedly) share information about the purpose of the support work and the associated expectations and limits. It is exasperating to discover that several hours of volunteer labor didn’t lead to a useful outcome. Helpers may not always be on the same page, simply because no one has taken the time to fully explain what needs to happen. In one instance, a team I was part of packed up donations to set up an apartment for a needy family. Everything was set out in boxes and ready to go, but the next team mistook the ready-packed boxes for new donations, unwrapped them, and placed the items carefully back onto the warehouse shelves. The waste of two shifts could have been prevented with a few written notes taped to the boxes and an ounce of oversight.

Inexpensive steps your organization can take right away:

  • Post a list of supplies that need to be replenished and read it/act on it
  • Create easy checklists to explain specific tasks

2. Meetings and communication

As an organization that relies on volunteer power, it is your responsibility to never waste your helpers’ time. Inexpertly run meetings and poor communication may lead to frustration that will drive even the most enthusiastic people away. To make good use of everyone’s time, distribute a concise agenda in advance and appropriately stick to it during the meeting. Follow-up is essential: even the best-run meeting is useless if decisions aren’t implemented.

Since social aspects can be important motivators for volunteers, your communication should encourage networking, sharing, and team-building. As a rule of thumb, only every other message from your organization should include a request for donations and time.

Inexpensive steps your organization can take right away:

  • Set up a place where volunteers can socialize (virtual is fine)
  • Review the relevance and length of meetings
  • Cut back on agenda items to avoid meeting burnout

3. Appropriate use of skills/expertise

One of the key frustrations that cause volunteers to lose interest in a cause is the sense that their skills are not well used. On a mission trip to Central America, I once witnessed a team that included a pediatrician, nurses, and language interpreters paint a fence for an entire afternoon. In that situation, lack of preparation and organizational foresight made spectacularly poor use of the potential the volunteers could have offered (and most likely wanted to share). While most situations aren’t as egregious, it makes sense for not-for-profit organizations to appropriately value the expertise of people who have already expressed a willingness to help.

Tasks must of course be assigned based on the most pressing operational needs, but in the long term, volunteers with, e.g., a marketing background or special qualifications can probably contribute much more than the initial role they were given. Simply asking, “Is this work a good fit for you?” might reveal some interesting information.

Inexpensive steps your organization can take right away:

  • Include a section on background, experience and skills in volunteer intake forms (or better yet, invite volunteers to self-report their interests)
  • Periodically survey key volunteers about their satisfaction level and find out where they see opportunities for growth

Fundraising sometimes takes precedence over other aspects of not-for-profit management because organizations presume that the relevance of their mission will be enough to attract volunteers. However, taking into account the difficulty of recruiting and training long-term helpers and the monetary value of an average volunteer hour, organizations are better advised to make strategic volunteer management a high priority.

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Showing 3 comments
  • Toudjidoum
    Reply

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  • Toudjidoum
    Reply

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