by Pete Kontakos and Jessica Edmondson
Volunteers can be the lifeblood of any organization – especially many non-profit organizations. As such, retaining trained and experienced volunteers can be critical to the success of your organization. It only makes sense to make every effort to make sure that volunteers are treated well and made to feel like important members of your organization. Volunteers who are not treated well or who perceive themselves to be disconnected from the organization will often choose to spend their time elsewhere.
In order to foster a sense of connection, the label “volunteer” should be viewed more as a statement about a pay rate, not a job title. This means that volunteers should receive the same regard and recognition as paid employees, with an understanding that they are there for a purpose, but of their own choice. Organizations and leaders often make the mistake of treating volunteers as a subclass of workers who are less important and less capable as paid employees. This perception often results in volunteers feeling disengaged and undervalued.
Creating and Retaining Connected Volunteers
One of the ways that you can motivate and retain volunteers is by providing effective and timely feedback. Praising a volunteer for a job done well can go a long way towards helping the volunteer feel appreciated and valued. Praise and recognition can be formal or informal. Informal recognition can be as simple as a word or note of thanks. Highlighting some the qualities that make the volunteer a pleasure to work with can also make him/her feel valued and admired. This can take the form of a casual mention that can be made at any time, like “You really have a way with people” or “I admire your ability to stay calm in a crisis.”
Formal recognition can include special events or parties, mentioning volunteers in organization newsletters, broadcasting volunteer achievements and contributions to leadership within the organization, or gifts and other tokens of appreciation. Designating a Volunteer of the Month or implementing a mentoring program where experienced volunteers mentor new volunteers are also great ways to recognize volunteer achievements and dedication.
Seeking input from volunteers is another excellent way to motivate them and help them feel like they are part of your team. Volunteers often see an organization more objectively than employees and may feel more comfortable with offering honest opinions and insights. Putting some of their suggestions into practice will help volunteers develop a sense of ownership and identification with your organization, which contributes to satisfaction.
Managing volunteers requires a different approach than managing paid employees. Most volunteers respond well to a leadership figure, but not to a boss-type figure. Giving orders and expecting to be obeyed generally alienates volunteers. Consider adopting a softer style where you position yourself as someone who is there to train, guide, and support volunteers.
Speaking of training, make sure you don’t neglect this critical function, whether you train volunteers yourself or designate someone else to do it. Insufficient training can leave volunteers unsure about how to perform their duties or even unable to adequately perform them. Volunteers who feel ill-prepared and inept typically don’t stay long. By committing to proper training, you are telling the volunteers that they are worth the investment of your time and effort.
Just as with paid employees, ensure that you communicate assignments clearly and provide volunteers with the tools and authority to complete the assignments. Make sure to keep volunteers informed on general issues as well, particularly those that may impact the way that a volunteer will perform duties. By keeping volunteers informed about projects and overall organizational news and events, you can help volunteers understand the “why’s” behind the “what’s” and place their service in the context of the overall organizational goals, which helps them see how they are contributing to the organization’s overall mission.
Keys to Volunteer Satisfaction and Retention
By effectively managing volunteers, you can increase your volunteer retention rate, ensuring your organization of having a staff of trained and experienced volunteers to help carry out the organizational mission. Building and maintaining a sense of connectedness and recognizing the contributions and achievements of volunteers are key elements in making them feel appreciated and fostering a sense of satisfaction in the work that they do.