6 Secrets to Keeping Volunteers Engaged and Giving Their Best
Get them to Show Up, Make an Impact and Keep them Coming Back
As you Live and Lead for Impact it is quite possible that, at some point, you will draw upon the time and talents of volunteers. I’ve worked with many nonprofits as a coach, have started ministries and utilized volunteers myself, have been a volunteer and have also served on a nonprofit board. And, I know that nonprofits, ministries, churches, PTA’s, or other similar organizations often struggle to find and keep volunteers. The keys I’ll share will also apply in other organizations like Network Marketing Teams, where uncompensated time can lead to profits.
How do you fuel commitment and ignite loyalty that generates a dynamic team that will show up, make an impact and keep coming back?
- Share Clear Expectations for Informed Commitment
Too often nonprofits, ministries or PTA’s ask for volunteers without communicating expectations clearly. If people don’t know what they’re signing up for how can they follow through? Committing loosely leads to loose commitment.
Instead, design and document a combination of volunteer positions that fulfill your needs. Share the documented expectations with potential volunteers so they know the kinds of tasks they’ll be working on and the commitment of time required per week or per month. This allows your volunteers to make informed decisions about the role they’ll take on. Commitments are then based on fact, which should increase follow through.
Documenting the requirements of each role will also help you avoid scope creep. That pesky little problem that plagues both for profit and not for profit entities alike. Someone makes a commitment, they do great work, you need some additional help, so you ask for more. I’ll cover this one in more detail in a minute.
- Inventory Volunteer Abilities & Special Skills and then Utilize Them
Too often it’s an all hands on deck, with a grab whatever you can do, mentality. But, asking volunteers to do what might be difficult for them can make them feel uncomfortable and the outcomes they generate may not be good.
We are all born with unique gifts, those skills that are innate or come easily to us. Most often our gifts are aligned with our passion. We love spending time in our area of gifting. Time flies, we feel energized at the end of our task and the outcomes we create can be amazing.
Take the time to learn the special skills of your volunteers. The exercise of asking will help them feel known, appreciated and valued. If you take it a step further and tap into those skills, you will also benefit from the superior output they create while doing what they love and are good at. A great way to get the best from your volunteers.
- Find Each Volunteer’s Currency and Fulfill it.
Even when there is real currency involved, you want the focus of a team to be on something beyond just a paycheck. Obviously, it’s even more important to identify the alternate currency when we’re talking about a team that is not paid money for their time.
You need to answer the questions, “what’s in it for them?” Let’s face it, people want to get something for their time. We don’t do much of anything unless there is some benefit to us. There are very few purely selfless acts.
Now, before you get all agitated with me, let me explain. I am not suggesting quid pro quo relationships where I do for you and require an equal something back. And I’m not suggesting that we all need to get paid for everything we do. But, if you are spending the resource of your time on something you will want a return on that investment. It could be the warm fuzzy feeling you get from serving someone less fortunate. Perhaps it’s playing a role in someone overcoming a fear, getting out of a bad situation, or achieving a big goal.
Figure out what currency your individual volunteers are working towards and help them enjoy that benefit. Here are a few potential currencies your volunteers may be working towards:
- They want to meet people interested in making an impact.
- A personal experience has them attached to your mission and they want to give back in a meaningful way
- They want to feel appreciated and would love to hear some thank you’s.
- They want to feel a sense of purpose.
- They want the chance to use their unique abilities to further your mission.
- They like to feel needed.
- They want to build new skills or find achievements to add to a resume.
- They are exploring a new career and want to learn more about the field.
There are more, but this will give you a start. Learn what your volunteers value to help them achieve their goals to keep them engaged and coming back.
- Allow Volunteers to Make a Meaningful Contribution!
As I often share, humans are driven by an innate desire to know that their lives are part of something bigger than themselves. Let your volunteers find that fuel through their work with you. Provide the opportunity for meaningful impact each time they volunteer. If the work they do is far removed from the main mission, help them see how their activities are still attached, helpful and important.
Value the volunteer and value their time. If you’ve scheduled a volunteer or invited them to participate in your mission in some way, make sure you have something lined up for them to do.
I still remember the time I showed up for a large church event. I had signed up to volunteer and was excited to help. Unfortunately, they had signed up far too many volunteers. A good problem to have, I know. BUT, for me, it was not a good experience at all. The people heading up the event were busy and dismissive. I walked around asking each team how I could help, but every area was overstaffed. My husband and I had driven together and he had a role so, I was stuck. I ended up spending the entire night walking around alone watching as others experienced the joy of making their impact. I’m not gonna lie, I felt devalued and alone. I wasn’t able to participate in the event that was getting my time. I had no role. I made no impact. You do not want your volunteers to feel like that….EVER!
I had a similar, though longer-term experience, serving on a nonprofit board. I was told that it was a “working board”, meaning, they wanted each member to contribute their knowledge, skills and abilities to the organization. I was specifically recruited because of my background and was told that my talents were aligned with current and pressing needs of the organization and that, as a result, I’d be able to make an important contribution.
This all sounded great to me. I was not interested in spending my time as a rubber stamp or to be just a name on a list to add to some meeting minutes. I wanted to use my time as a true resource and was happy to give back in that way.
I immediately began working on some human resource related projects, heading them up and pulling in colleagues who agreed to provide their talents as a favor to me. I also began some work to improve processes and conducted some leadership training.
I believed in their mission and wanted to make a big impact with the team. I was investing my time toward specific impact.
The problem was, at every turn, my efforts were overturned or denied before implementation. There seemed to be a “we don’t like change” mentality driving the team and an underlying false belief that change meant that the current systems were bad and they’d done something wrong. It, thus, became very difficult to make any real impact. My investment of time was not making a difference. I did not stay for an additional term on that board.
I am not unique. People want to feel valued and know that their investment of time is worthwhile. Value the time your volunteers contribute and assure that they are able to make a difference.
5. Avoid Scope Creep:
They are willing and seem to love working with you to help you make your impact. You ask and they say yes. What’s the harm? Well……the truth is, some people have a hard time saying no. And, while this is certainly something they should work on and it wouldn’t be all on you if they DID say yes when they wanted to say no, it is something you MUST keep in mind.
Too often this scenario happens: They keep working, you keep asking, they keep saying yes. They are too uncomfortable to say no, or feel guilty for leaving you strapped, so they just keep doing more and more and more. It is quite possible that the person who seems to be happily helping more and more is actually feeling really burned out, over-extended or maybe even used. You don’t want a great volunteer who’s become overwhelmed to tell you no with their feet, as they disappear altogether!
So, am I suggesting that you should never ask a volunteer to do more than what they’ve agreed to? No! But, I am saying…be very careful about how you ask. Make sure you are not adding extra pressure. Do everything in your power to allow them the freedom to say no. Assure them that you will be fine either way and will not think ill of them if they say no.
And, if there is anything in their body language or voice that tells you they are saying yes with duress, point it out. “It seems like you might be saying yes when you really need to say no to me right now. If you need to say no that is ok! I appreciate all that you do and fully realize this would be additional work for you. I’m throwing it out there in case it works for you but you are under no obligation what so ever to say yes and I will be fine whether you say yes or no.”
When you first bring them on board you’ve asked them to make an informed decision about the amount of time involved in volunteering with you. And, you’ve asked them to commit to a specific volunteer role. You, as the leader must commit as well. Be true to the original request you made of them. If you do ask for some additional support give them every license to say no.
- Show Appreciation Often:
Humans have an innate desire to feel known, acknowledged and appreciated. Fill that need for your volunteers. I’m not talking about all grand gestures. Just a quick authentic thank you, a note in the mail (how often does anyone get a handwritten note these days?), a high five, a thumbs up. Some love kudos in front of the team or at an event from the stand. Be authentically appreciative of each gesture, no matter how small.
I’ll share another personal story here. I would often drop clothing and household items off at a local nonprofit. They didn’t have a pickup service, but I believed in the mission so took the extra time to drive and drop my donations. Each time I was greeted by employees who treated my arrival like a chore. They’d grab my items and immediately start tossing them into appropriate piles. They were always very focused on the task and quite efficient. It’s a pretty subtle thing but the one thing they forgot was to acknowledge my giving in any way.
Now, I didn’t take it personally or get upset. But, since I work with so many nonprofits I’m always aware of potential problems. And, dropping off items isn’t a volunteer position per se but it is a touchpoint with members of the community and failing to show gratitude was a lost chance to connect. And, there are plenty of other places to donate to, most more convenient. If someone’s currency is appreciation they were missing the chance.
Show appreciation for even small gestures with at least a simple thanks.