How to Maintain Good Volunteers

Volunteers are the lifeblood of many organizations – schools, libraries, nonprofit agencies, community gardens, youth programs, hospitals – if there is an organization in your community providing a service or program, chances are volunteers are helping to keep the doors open. As citizens, we are drawn to helping out and giving of our time and energy to help those in our community. Unfortunately, we don’t always feel welcome or needed and we may find volunteering isn’t exactly what we thought it would be.

There are several things volunteer coordinators, school administrators and others who rely on volunteer labor and expertise can do to make the best use of volunteers and make them feel welcome, necessary and appreciated. After all, a volunteer who contributes five hours of time a week, would cost an organization around $15,000 a year in personnel expense if he or she was a paid employee. That’s a lot of value from one well-meaning individual!

Before signing up a single volunteer, it pays to be prepared. One of the common complaints of frustrated volunteers is that there is nothing useful for them to do. Just as if you were hiring an employee, prepare a job description and decide how each volunteer will be oriented, trained and integrated into operations. Make sure there is a clear “chain of command” and if, possible, have the volunteer answer to one person instead of “supervision by committee.” Gone are the days of housewives or seniors with plenty of time to spare as volunteers – people who volunteer are often very busy and lead full, energetic lives. They do not want to waste time where they do not feel as though they are making an impact. Make sure that calls and emails are answered promptly; set up an opportunity to visit or conduct an “interview” as soon as possible. If you don’t, you may lose a volunteer who is shopping for somewhere to devote energy.

It is important to remember that everyone is motivated to volunteer for different reasons. Just like managing paid staff, a good coordinator or supervisor will take the time to get to know each individual volunteer and gain an understanding of what they would like to do and why they are volunteering. Not everyone wants a lot of fanfare or her name listed in the monthly newsletter – but some do. Some individuals volunteer to expand their social life, so sticking them in a back room to do filing is not going to make for very satisfied volunteers.

Appreciation is a key component to treating volunteers well. You cannot say “thank you” enough! But, don’t always say it the same way – a birthday card, mention in the newsletter, a volunteer appreciation luncheon or banquet, home-baked cookies with a little note – are all some ideas. Don’t overlook the verbal, “Thank you for all you do,” coming from more than one person – saying thank you should be part of the organization’s culture if you are to maintain quality volunteers.

One area overlooked in volunteer coordination is ongoing communication. Often, a volunteer will begin at one task and be left to do the same task day after day without any chance for change or input. Volunteers like to feel challenged and involved just like employees. The coordinator/supervisor should touch base often (weekly, if possible, or at every visit if less frequent,) and ask for ideas and feedback. Give volunteers a chance to make changes, take on additional tasks, or “opt out” if they feel the need. It is all part of treating each individual like a valued and cherished part of the team.

Many community services would wither and die if it weren’t for stellar and committed volunteers. There is no magic or secret to maintaining quality volunteers, just some common sense and dedicated effort!

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