If you run a non-profit organization you rely heavily on un-paid volunteers to do much of the work that keeps the lights on in your group. You are no doubt accomplishing great things using volunteers and it's no doubt a full-time job keeping them happy and productive.
Consider the volunteers you have in your non-profit that have direct contact with your donors and the public! (Oooh, that should get your attention!) They aren't ALWAYS representing your group the way you would want them to and it's sometimes due to them not being empowered, enabled, encouraged and appreciated.
Think about ways to motivate, empower and appreciate those volunteers. They want to be there and you want them there. After all, keeping them productive is part of your day-job. "Churn" is turnover and when you lose people you lose all of the knowledge they have about how to get things done.
Think about these points:
1. Always be recruiting new volunteers. The ones you have that keep performing day in and day out are getting tired and frustrated. Some at a quicker pace than others. Get the reinforcements ready. (Better yet, keep the ones you have happy!) It's always easier to keep volunteers, or employees, than it is to find and train new ones.
2. When a volunteer signs up to help, they are expecting to spend a certain amount of time in service. Know what that expectation is on their part regarding the length of their assignment. Be mindful of it. Either set more realistic expectations with them or adjust your own expectations of their time. This has to be a win-win for both sides.
3. Try to be mindful that those volunteering get frustrated when they either take on, or are sent to do, a project and the effort isn’t supported by the organization. Wild goose chases that end in an aborted project prior to completion are frustrating and disappointing to the volunteer. Volunteers want to accomplish goals. They really do!
4. Empowerment is very…..well, empowering. Volunteers love to have the support and resources they need to be successful in their work.
5. When you get asked a question, give a prompt and complete answer. Avoiding answering the question or passing-the-buck as this is frustrating and discouraging to the volunteers.
6. Your support staff that works for you in a full-time, paid capacity need to be in agreement with you on the importance of volunteers. Volunteers are not distractions, annoyances or threats to the administrative staff in your organization. Few things are more demotivating to a volunteer than to be given the runaround by an office worker or talked to in a demeaning tone by that same staff member when you aren’t around to see what’s happening. Train your full-time staff to assist you in supporting the volunteers and keeping the group productive and happy.
7. Oftentimes organizations make all of the “good decisions” or make the fun calls and leave just the grunt work to the volunteers. I’ll challenge you that those same volunteers you have helping you make high-level, strategic, impactful decisions in their day jobs and they can give you some great insights if you listen to them. Heck, if you just ASK them their thoughts in the first place before you dictate the direction you want to go you’d be tapping into some potentially great insights and experience. For example, often it's the case that a non-profit will take on legal work or other skilled trade work when they have attorneys, plumbers, IT professionals, etc. all within their reach as potential help. They are sitting right under your nose most of the time and they know how to do what you need done. They do it everyday in their role at work.
8. One thing that some volunteers really hate to see is when their work goes to waste. (See #3 above) When a volunteer proudly completes a project and the output is set on a shelf (figuratively or literally) it sends a message that you don’t care about the time that was donated to complete the deliverable. Bad, bad stuff. Be a good steward of your volunteer's time and only ask them to take on tasks that are needed.
9. Something that has been happening a lot lately is that organizations make it very difficult and frustrating for volunteers to get reimbursed for legitimate expenses that they volunteer incurred while on assignment. If you make it hard for them to get paid back, they’ll quit going the extra mile by using their own money up front to get things done. If you frustrate the volunteer with lengthy red-tape to fill out expense reports it will permeate throughout the ranks and you’ll be known as an organization that leaves volunteers hanging when it comes to their personal money. There’s frugality and then there’s just being difficult.
10. On the other side of things I do see organizations that get volunteers involved in meetings and decisions at the organization level where it’s probably best that only paid staff and members of the Board are shown what is happening behind the curtains. Watch this one….
11. Use the talents of the volunteers. As I stated in #7 above, many of these people you have sweeping floors are attorneys 50 hours a week. That guy that is doing some entry-level task for you may be a senior executive at his private sector job. All-things-considered you could have your next Board Member or full-time staff resource right there within your volunteer ranks.
12. In general, just be respectful of the volunteer’s time. Last-minute meetings being called during the volunteers family time puts the volunteer (and their spouse that will need to watch their 3 children) in a tough spot. Think about how you value your free time and know that they are already spending some of their valuable free time helping you and your organization’s efforts because they love what you do and they are passionate about what you are accomplishing together.
I could go into several examples of each of these. I could tout reasons and excuses for why these things happen in non-profits. I could also make the case that many volunteers are rude, self-righteous and demanding. Nobody will deny that. (I know I’m not always the best helper with the right attitude.) However, if your organization relies heavily on non-paid team members then you are beholden to that same volunteer workforce to help you accomplish your mission. Managing those efforts are something you have to be good at or you will become known as a group that isn’t desirable to volunteer for.
Best of luck to you in your non-profit’s journey. I hope you find, and retain, a loyal group of helpers that are as committed to your vision as you are!