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Last updated October 12, 2018

Next to funding, one of the biggest challenges faced by non-profits is finding and keeping volunteers. There are a few organisations who manage to do it really well, but most don’t. In fact a quick (albeit unscientific) survey of local organisations showed that 70% of groups don’t have a formal plan for retaining volunteers. Instead they rely on goodwill, the odd morning tea shout and an annual Christmas card to keep volunteers engaged.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it isn’t enough. If you want your volunteers to stick around they need to know their involvement is making a genuine difference and that their contribution is both recognised and appreciated. It’s not about smothering them with meaningless praise; it’s about taking time to truly acknowledge the value they bring to your organisation. Once you do that, genuine appreciation and recognition will follow.

1. Little and Often

Don’t wait for a speacial occasion to say thanks to your volunteers in a big way, instead get into the habit of thanking them ‘little and often’. An unexpected card in the mail or a surprise phone call to say thanks means a lot to a tired (or not so tired) volunteer.

If it doesn’t come naturally, make yourself a schedule to ensure that every volunteer gets an unanticipated thank you at least once a month and then make sure you are consistent. If you get busy with lots of thank-you’s one month and then forget for another two, people will wonder what’s going on.

2. Know What They Want

People choose to volunteer for all sorts of reasons, but the crux of it all, there is something in it for them. They might be looking to meet new people, develop new skills or simply give-back to their community. For some people volunteering provides an opportunity to share their hobby or perhaps try a new one. Whatever the reason for getting involved, you need to make sure their need is being met; otherwise they’ll leave and find somewhere else where it can be.

It’s also important to realise that a person’s needs will change over time. What prompted them to start volunteering may not be what keeps them there. Make sure you regularly check in to see how their needs may have changed.

3. Speak Their Language

Not everyone likes to be acknowledged in the same way, so it is important to recognise those differences and thank volunteers in a way that is meaningful for them. Some of the differences are personality-based, some due to culture or ethnicity, and some are generational preferences or norms.

A Gen X or Y volunteer enjoys receiving a thank you via text or public post on facebook, where as a Baby Boomer would much prefer a handwritten card. If you want your appreciation to be felt, you need to demonstrate it in a way that works for each individual.

4. Make It Easy

I’m not suggesting that volunteers don’t work hard, but it is also important that you make it as easy as possible for them to do their job. Provide clear job descriptions, give them the right tools for the task, and let them know who they need to talk to if they want help. Give them plenty of training and support so that they feel confident in their role, and most importantly, remeber to ask them what would make their job easier.

You might find that organising a car pool, setting up a taller chair in the workshop or providing a place for them to park their bike, is all it would take to make life easier for your cherished volunteer. However if you don’t ask, you may never know, and you’ll miss the opportunity to get it right.

5. Build a Integrated Team

Your volunteers are as much a part of your team as your staff and trustees, so make sure you treat them as such. Avoid any activity that promotes a ‘them and us’ culture and make sure your staff follow your lead.

If your staff have a uniform, make sure your volunteers get one too. If you have a staff room, make sure it is availablefor everyone to use. And if you’re planning a team event, make sure you recognise that volunteers are a part of your team.

6. Don’t Scrimp

If you want to look after your volunteers properly, you need to allocate a budget for that purpose; otherwise your volunteers will only get the scraps of what’s left.

I’m not suggesting that you spend thousands of dollars on volunteer recognition, but you do need to allow enough to cover the basics. Chocolate biscuits at meetings, thank you cars and gifts, uniforms, name badges, training, welcome packs and regular get-togethers. Every dollar you invest in your volunteers will be well and truly rewarded and there are plenty of funders who are happy to cover expenses related to volunteers.

7. Reimburse

One of the reasons people give up volunteering is that it becomes too expensive. What starts as a one-off collection of milk on the way to the centre, can easily end up as a habit, or worse, an expectation. Make sure that every volunteer knows the rules and processes in relation to expenses, and encourage them to seek reimbursement right from the start.

8. Acknowledge their Families

For some people volunteering means a lot of time away from their partners and children, so it is important to recognise this when you are showing your appreciation. Instead of hosting a thank you dinner that means yet another night out, consider a thank you event where the whole family can attend. When writing a thank you card to your volunteer, include an extra ‘Chocolate Fish’ for their partner who supports their volunteer work by being able available at home.

Take time to find out about your volunteer’s family. Learn the names of their partner and children, and be interested in the family milestones. Questions like “How is Tony enjoying intermediate?” shows your volunteer that you care.

9. Ask for Feedback

Get into the habit of asking your volunteers for regular feedback about your organisation and actually take on-board what they say. Having the opportunity to contribute ideas and suggestions tells your volunteer that they are more than a pair of hands – they are a whole person with opinions that matter.

Asking for feedback doesn’t have to be formal and stuffy. Simply asking questions such as “How was that event for you?” or “What do you think about the new layout?” is enough to keep the channels of communication open.

10. Provide Formal Recognition

Every volunteer is important and every contribution should be appreciated, but there are some volunteers who really do go the extra mile and it is important to formally recognise them for their contribution.

A formal recognition programme could be as simple as a certificate of service once they have completed 50 hours of volunteering, or perhaps a badge of honour for those volunteers who have been involved for 5, 10, or 20 years. A Volunteer of the Year Award could be presented to the volunteer who has made an outstanding contribution, remembering that it is not necessarily about the number of hours served.

When you genuinely recognise the value that volunteers bring to your organisation, all of these tips are easy to implement. However, for many organisations the real challenge is changing mind-sets so that the true worth of volunteers is understood. If you’re struggling to see how you could implement all of these ideas, take a few minutes to imagine your organisation without any helping hands. Makes the effort all worthwhile, doesn’t it?

Extract from Issue 21 of Tonic Magazine

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