Keeping Volunteers

Question: Our organization relies  a lot on the help of volunteers to get things done. And we have had some really great volunteers over the years—the problem is they don’t usually stay very long.  But we want them to! Any tips on keeping the good volunteers we find?

Answer: Good question! Volunteers can be your organization’s bread and butter if you play your cards right. The problem seems usually to be that they’re busy people, and since they’re not being paid to work for your organization’s mission, they have to do it because they’re getting something out of it, whether it’s a fun time socializing or the sense that what they’re doing is making a big difference to the river they care about.
Here are some tips for keeping volunteers happy and feeling motivated:

•    Give Them Your Time:
When someone asks if they can help, sometimes our instinct is to say, “YES!” and dump the stuffing of 700 envelopes on them and then run out to do some errands.  But considering you’d be the person stuffing those envelopes if the volunteer wasn’t there, take some time to sit down and help them, ask them questions about what they’re interested in, answer questions they have about the organization’s work.  This can serve you in a couple ways: they’ll feel appreciated and accepted, and you can find out more about their skill set so next time they come in, maybe you’ll pair them with a job they’ll be especially good at.

•    Give Them Information:
Tell a volunteer why they’re doing the job you’ve tasked them with, and a little about how it fits into the work of the organization.  For instance, if they’re taking pictures at an event, tell them how you’re going to use the pictures and why they’re important to you. They’ll do a better job if they know why they’re doing it!

Similarly, it’s a good idea to set them up for success by telling them what’s expected of them. If what you need from them is punctuality, confidentiality, or efficiency, it’s okay to let them know up front.  The more information you can give them about what you need, the fewer awkward conversations you have to have later when they’re not quite meeting your expectations.

•    Give Them Respect:
I know, it’s obvious.  But volunteers like to be thanked and acknowledged for the work they do, as well as to feel you respect and appreciate the time and energy they put into your organization. This can be accomplished by a simple “thank you,” but always be thinking of ways you can acknowledge them with an award—or if they’re the shy type, just a lunch or a coffee or small gift. Ask how things are going for them, listen to their opinions about how things could be done, etc.

In addition, make sure you really are respecting their time.  If you asked them to come in for an hour, let them know when their hour is up.  You and your volunteer are investing time in each other, and with any luck, your relationship will be a long, productive one.

Good luck!