Keep Your Volunteers from Quitting

Places of worship, civic groups, nonprofits, schools and even commercial businesses all depend on a level of “free” work that is donated by loyal supporters. I stress the word free, because free isn’t really free.  volunteer-retention-community-volunteers-leading-at-life-leadership-non-profitThere is a cost to not having to pay people in dollars. Volunteers have a different measure of pay.  It is usually in the feeling of giving back, the emotional desire to be part of a group and sometimes it is even to feel needed.  Whatever that payoff is, it dictates volunteer retention. It’s important for leaders to meet those needs and show volunteers that they are valued.  Here are a few ways to keep volunteers volunteering!

vOL TOOLKIT LOGO big1. Work their Strengths – Place them where they are gifted instead of where you “need” them.  I know that this may be difficult to imagine but volunteers are people too. They have degrees, experiences and knowledge that may help the organization in ways other than answering phones and sealing envelopes.  Having a retired business man spend hours boxing clothes for the next clothing drive is a lot less efficient than having him make the fundraising connections with other businesses (reminiscent of his time managing a sales department) to boost the drive’s chances for success. In your introductory process (make sure you have one), volunteers should fill out a quick questionnaire about their strengths, experiences and where they feel most led to work.  I love to share great solutions. You can get the StengthFinder Intake Form that I give my clients for free. It makes a huge difference in retention and productivity.  Feel free to print it out and share as needed to get you started.  Even if you don’t think you need help in a particular area at the moment, these volunteers become great resources for ideas and innovation.


2. Keep Your Word – If you ask your volunteer to stay from 2-4 to help with the youth event, don’t ask them to stay longer once they are there.  This is a sign of poor planning and it puts them in a bad position and their view of the organization in a “dimmer” light.  Even if they agree, they won’t forget that uncomfortable position. Remember the last time someone did the “bait and switch” on you or guilted you into doing more than you you agreed to do. How did you feel the next time that person asked for something?  You don’t want to be “that guy”.  Do your best to schedule and plan with every contingency in mind.

3. Remember Why They Volunteer – Volunteers give their time because they enjoy or feel passionate about the organization’s cause. If this is a place of worship or civic group, try not to place them in a position where they consistently can’t attend the worship service or meeting that stirred up that passion. If they are ushering or helping at the door, even if it seems like they are at the meeting, they aren’t able to truly focus on the speaker or be part of the discussion. Stagger these obligations as much as possible.  You may want to have a regular audit cycle where you ask volunteers to let you know when they are available and what meetings they don’t want to miss.  There are all kinds of great software that will let volunteers schedule themselves. I found volunteerspot.comThey are a FREE and simple online tool that makes it a snap to schedule and sign-up volunteers, giving volunteers more control over their time and giving you less headache trying to figure out everyone’s schedule.  Remember, the last thing you want to do is to disconnect the volunteer from the reason why they volunteer.

4. Respect Family Time – No brainer right?  Not so much.  In consulting nonprofits, I have found that one of the main reasons that volunteers quit is that the volunteering began cutting into their family or personal time too often.  If your organization has too few volunteers and too much work, it is time to reassess your organizational structure.  You may have to add paid, part-time positions to the mix.  If the budget isn’t available, let your group know that you need more volunteers.  If you are being effective at meeting the needs of your community, volunteers will be available to meet the needs of the organization.  If not that many people are willing and passionate enough to help, this is a major red flag. What you are doing and how you are doing it, needs to be reassessed.Viability is sustainability. Do a gut check.

5. Connect – In the beginning you met with volunteers, did some level of vetting into their backgrounds (I hope) and made them feel welcome.  What have you done to connect lately? It is really important to make sure that they feel relational connected to you and the rest of the team that they are serving with.  This creates a great team dynamic and fosters growth and synergy.  Just like paid staff (or even more so), volunteers want to feel part of a collective .  They are showing up to give of themselves. Make sure that they get back good emotional responses.  The more connected they are to you and their group mates, the more dynamic and productive the team becomes.

6. Remember their Sacrifice – Don’t work them like they have to be here. If you lean too heavily on a volunteer while forgetting that they are doing this because they want to, you are heading for trouble. The kryptonite for volunteers is feeling unappreciated/undervalued.  Consistently recognize them with a thank you. Acknowledge their commitment regularly… like almost every day. Think of this as their pay.  No pay, no play!  Also, try not to go overboard on giving  them menial tasks to do or have them over spending their own time, money, gas, food…etc. This can happen very easily.  Because Ms. Clara loves baking, doesn’t mean that you should count on her to supply food at EVERY event for free. Even if she offers to do it. Be realistic. Even though they may not say anything in the beginning, overlooking a volunteer’s sacrifice is chipping away at their reason for being there. If Ms. Clara does genuinely want to provide those delicious baked goods for every event, make mention of her each time. Pay her in gratitude if you don’t have funds and give her first dibs on doing the catering when you do plan to pay for it.

7. REWARD REGULARLY – Want to keep your volunteers motivated? Reward them for success – big or small. Document it. Put it on the wall. Put volunteer photos in your newsletter. It doesn’t have to cost money, but it should show them that they are recognized for their efforts.  This is so important for future initiatives.  You are creating a history of success.  When times get tough, you’ve already invested in them and they understand that they are appreciated.  This also goes a long way in encouraging others to volunteer.  Everyone wants to be part of a winning and appreciated team. Cool stuff!

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Did I miss anything? Share  your best tips with the group.  This is a collective and it’s about building community. I would love to hear from you. Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below and help me spread the love. Share via the links provided.  –MJ



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