Volunteers – How to retain the best and recruit more

Volunteers are the lifeblood of non-profits.  They enable you to reach more people and make a greater impact than you could without their efforts.  So how do you keep those star-performers and recruit their friends?  By offering them your respect, encouragement and appreciation.  Take heed of the following pointers and reap the benefits:

1. Inspire.  Volunteers need to know that what they are doing is making a difference. Relay testimonies from people who’ve been impacted by a program or event where your volunteers served.  Offer a mental picture of what something or someone will look like because of their service.  This isn’t something you only do to get people to sign up.  You must inspire your volunteers constantly or they’ll get bored or discouraged thinking that they’re not making a difference.  It’s your job to keep the vision in front of them at all times.

2. Respect.  Volunteers have day jobs, family commitments and busy lives.  If you need them to attend a meeting or serve at an event, ask them at least one week in advance (earlier is better).  This gives them time to plan it into their schedule. There are very few true emergencies!  Respect your volunteers’ talent by placing them where they will succeed and that best utilizes their skills.

3. Ask.  These people do not work for you.  They are giving you a precious commodity – their time and talents.  Ask them for help and ask in advance (see #2).

4. Appreciate.  Say “thank you” often.  Tell your volunteers how much you appreciate and value their involvement.  Coordinate small events like a lunch or party with your volunteers.  Send hand-written thank you notes.  Send text messages or emails and be specific as to what you saw them do that made a difference.  A simple act of appreciation can go a long way.

5. Listen.  Ask your volunteers what’s working and what’s not working.  Ask what you can do to make their efforts easier and more effective.  Then respond quickly to their suggestions.  Either explain why you can’t implement a suggestion or go ahead and implement it ASAP.  Volunteers need to know that you heard them and valued their feedback.  Otherwise, they won’t bother to give you their insights if you ask again.  Action and communication is key here.

Some may say that we need people to rise to the occasion and volunteer regardless of whether we ask, what they’re asked to do, etc.  Some volunteers will do exactly that and will amaze you with their dedication and commitment.  However, that’s more the exception than the rule and we need to plan accordingly.  If you inspire people, respect them and treat them well, most will respond in-kind and will become those all-star volunteers.  Invest the time and energy to cultivate a strong, committed volunteer base – it’s worth the effort for your organization, the people you serve and for your volunteers.

What do you do to invest in your volunteers?  If you’re a volunteer, what have you appreciated about the organization you volunteered for and how they treated you?