A potential, eager volunteer shows up at your organization’s door, meeting or community garden plot. Are you prepared to put them to work? Once that’s accomplished—are you prepared to maintain their interest?
On the flipside, you are a volunteer having second thoughts about staying with an organization. What might be happening to evoke that ambivalence? What ideas might you suggest to make your experience more rewarding?
If improving the volunteer experience is important to you, you might want to follow along.
In the previous post Why You’re not Getting the Most out of your Volunteers we talked about the Volunteer Canada study and problematic themes that rose to the top. In the post before that Are Volunteers Walking Out on You? we learned that two-thirds of volunteers surveyed had had at least one negative experience when trying to volunteer. In this post we’ll follow through with the Volunteer Canada recommendations—and some of my own.
The “Bridging the Gap—Enriching the Volunteer Experience to Build a Better Future for our Communities” study indicated that in order to provide rewarding volunteer experiences, organizations should strive to:
Develop integrated human resources strategies and practices among paid and unpaid help
Develop or improve actions to encourage engagement
Develop customized roles to satisfy varied volunteers
Work to be flexible and accommodating with volunteers
Build meaningful relationships with volunteers
Be sensitive to gender, culture, language and age
Provide greater engagement with an online presence
I offer these elaborations and include some of my own recommendations.
- It is wise for an organization to periodically review the organization’s stance on the state of its volunteerism, its impact and perceived value. Make the topic part of agendas, review successes and potential problems.
- Appoint someone with the role of creating volunteer drives, working on retention, volunteer orientation, training, recognition, annual reviews if possible, and one-on-one repeated contact with the volunteer. Have training sessions in place and ready.
- Make an effort to learn where the individual volunteer is in their life cycle and what their personal goals and volunteer motivations are, and with regard to the time they devote to the organization. Are they showing up to practice skills, get experience? Volunteer Canada recommends tailoring jobs to the individual’s characteristics and desires as much as possible. You might be surprised to learn that the accountant you had in mind for bookkeeping instead might be seeking alternative occupational therapy such as simply digging in the dirt for a change.
- Get to know each individual volunteer personally if possible, and introduce them to others. Remember the first day of kindergarten? Common courtesy. Monitor that the volunteer is being treated fairly by others and encourage inclusion and teamwork. Most volunteers come to socialize and develop relationships with others. Provide that opportunity repeatedly. Socialization and the building of meaningful relationships may well be the primary motivator, though often unexpressed. Keep channels of communication open.
- Follow human resources guidelines for volunteers as well as staff. How will work or general goals be evaluated, and what are the feedback mechanisms, how will you ensure two-way communication between the organization and those working on the front line. As in corporate HR departments, exit interviews can help gather information about patterns and issues forcing volunteers to drop out. Know that human rights and employment standards also apply to volunteer engagement.
- Be sensitive to gender, culture, language, age and changing cultural demographics. The Volunteer Canada study said “Diverse volunteer bases that reflect the changing demographics of today’s society will better position an organization to serve a range of communities.”
- Provide greater online engagement if you’re not doing so already. Leverage the power of the internet and social media technologies. These have or are becoming primary means to search for volunteer opportunities and offer an additional way to connect with organization participants.
I would add . . .
Provide leadership, supervision and structure fitting to the group’s culture. The organization as a whole should do the same. Provide guidelines. There’s nothing worse than working for someone or “an outfit” that seems direction-less. Seat-of-the-pants and guerrilla management works only so long, and long-term commitment will deteriorate. Find the balance between accommodating volunteer schedules while showing clarity about the organization’s time needs and anticipated commitment.
Be prepared and have ways of substituting if volunteers’ schedules suddenly change. Keep roles loose and adaptable for quick change and unexpected incoming talents. Be open to providing plenty of diverse or custom-made roles as individual skills and interests are varied. Encourage challenge and advancement.
Now my thirty years involved with volunteering tell me that theory, practice and reality rarely coincide. What’s been offered above is broad advice and advice for advanced groups. If your group is new, small or you consider yourself grassroots, apply what you can in principle. You have the advantage of being able to get to know individuals closely. Keep the lines of communication open. Show tolerance, courtesy and don’t take anything too seriously. That goes for organizations and volunteers alike!
From experience, only you can know what is right for your organization’s volunteer livelihood—what works in your community and what’s right for you as a volunteer.
My advice in a nutshell? Make it social, keep it simple. Keep it light, and make it fun.
To view the Volunteer Canada study link through here.
Nancy R. Peck