Jul 24, 2013

15 Common Mistakes to Avoid to Keep Your Volunteers Happy

Whether you are a leader in a parent association at a school, a coordinator for fundraising for an advocacy group, a room parent or in a paid position in a church or other non-profit, you are probably painfully aware that volunteers are the life-blood of your organization.  It is nearly impossible, and certainly exhausting, to get everything done you need to get done without a number of competent volunteers.   As a person who frequently volunteers and finds herself occasionally in a position of authority over volunteers (for more than 15 years), I have both observed and made some common mistakes that cause volunteers to run for the hills screaming (or bitterly leaving swearing to never volunteer again).

I have listened compassionately to volunteer coordinators as they lament the lack of volunteers.  I have watched frustrated leaders go far beyond the call of duty working their fingers to the bone because there is no one else to do the work and, as they say, the show must go on.  I have walked with, talked with and volunteered alongside men and women who are talented, charismatic, kind-hearted and passionate about their vision, who can't recruit more than a handful of faithful volunteers to join them in their journey.

So why is that?  Why do some small churches have dozens of fabulous volunteers, when other larger churches have a smaller number?  Why do some PTOs or PTAs have dozens of enthusiastic parents involved, when some are barely scratching by with less than 10? 

Some of it may be cultural, and demographics may play into it.  We are busy, and we are frantic in our busyness.  We don't all value hard work and volunteerism.  Some people may be insecure and fear that they have nothing to offer.  But sometimes, it might be some simple mistakes that are being made, over and over, that are undercutting your ability to recruit, empower and retain the volunteers around you.

So here they are:

Mistake#1: Never Ask
Fact: a sign-up sheet on a door, a counter or a desk is not asking for volunteers, though it is a great place for people to sign-up to help.  Pick up a phone or better yet, walk up to a potential volunteer and ask.  Just ask.  The worst thing they can say is NO... then you can follow up with " are you willing to do something else?" I could rant on about this for awhile, and I can't tell you how many times I've listened to a leader complaining bitterly about how no one will help them, when they haven't actually asked anyone to help.  Making an announcement to a crowded room or sending a mass-mailing asking for volunteers won't do it, people will assume that someone else will step up, or that you don't need them.  You need to ask.

Mistake #2: Allowing your volunteers to feel expendable or superfluous 
Before you get defensive and say that you aren't responsible for another person's feelings, I don't disagree, but you can make sure that your volunteers feel like they are needed.  Have you ever volunteered somewhere and showed up to find that you really aren't needed?  You signed up to bring water for a class party and when you bring it, someone else has already provided it.  That sort of thing tends to make you feel unnecessary.  If that happens more than once, it will quickly create an environment where people will stop offering their help.  Make sure you have something for every volunteer to keep their hands busy, or you may lose that volunteer.

Mistake #3: Ignore their hard work
There is a great debate about whether altruism is real.  I would guess that most people don't volunteer for the recognition or prestige, but volunteers will eventually leave if there is never a recognition of their sacrifice.  A simple thank you will suffice, in genuine spoken words or a simply written note.

Mistake #4: Show a lack of respect for your volunteer's time.
If you say you'll meet your volunteer somewhere for a meeting or to connect, meet them.   If you say you'll have resources for them, make sure you get those resources to them, don't make them come after you.  This is one that I have regularly struggled with as a leader.  I know many leaders struggle in this area.  Don't allow your inner procrastinator to rule you.  This is especially important when you are dealing with volunteers.   Follow through with what you say you'll do.  If you can't, then be honest and tell them that you can't.

Mistake #5: Ask them, even if you know they don't want to.
As you build rapport and relationships with volunteers, you will begin to know what they like to do, and what they don't like to do.   For example, I don't feel as though I have the patient endurance to teach a 4th-5th grade Sunday school class, I don't feel called to it, I don't have any desire to do it again (I did once upon a time), I have verbally said that I don't have any desire to teach that grade level.  Therefore, it might make me frustrated if the Children's Ministry Director asked me to teach that class, because she should know I don't want to teach it.  I know she has to fill a position, but not with me. Listen to your volunteers, make a note if you tend to forget.  Don't make them say no, if you already knew the answer.

Mistake #6: Ignore their strengths and knowledge
Some volunteers have training and education that would help them fulfill certain roles.  Recognize those strengths by asking a volunteer to fill a "high-skill-level" position.  Affirm what they do well by telling them "Bill, you are so well organized, I would love for you to take care of this area because it needs an organized person, like you."

Mistake #7: Micro-manage them.
Just one negative experience with a volunteer, where something doesn't get done, might make you feel justified in keeping your hand in every pie, but it alienates people, especially skilled or competent volunteers.  Empower them to do their job - and then let go and let them do it their way.  Empowerment is a risky business because you have to be able to trust them to put their best effort forward.  In the midst of this empowerment, it's okay to verify with them that they are doing what they said they would.   Trust but verify. {I learned this from a previous supervisor, who was a recovering micro-manager.}

Mistake #8: Take advantage of them.
Some volunteers will say yes forever, because they have the time and like to be helpful.  It is important that sometimes you say "no" for them.  I've seen it again and again with volunteers who won't say no, even when they probably should, because they are so kind-hearted.  It is tempting to ask them to do everything because it's easier than finding a new volunteer.  The risk is that you will eventually use them up and then they won't help you at all.  

Mistake #9: Use manipulation to recruit volunteers.
It's tempting, but it's dishonest.  Using guilt or shame to get someone to volunteer with you might work once or twice, but it will create a hostile environment.  Another common form of manipulation is to come-on like a used car salesman and try to talk them into volunteering, even if they may have said no to begin with.  Sometimes people need a little nudge, but not this way.  Nagging someone into volunteering may work once, but then they will avoid you like the plague.

Mistake #10:  Be either overly harsh or too indirect with criticism.
Sometimes a volunteer may need some "redirection" within the context of their volunteer job.  This is difficult in even the best circumstances.  The best way to approach this is directly.  Be clear about what you need them to do, and use gentle constructive criticism if you need them to change their approach.  Blaming, yelling at, or sidelining a volunteer who isn't "measuring up" will lose you that volunteer and potentially others who are influenced by that volunteer. How to be direct: observe the behavior (I notice you are doing this), ask for clarification (are you aware that I need you to do this?), offer help (if I help you in this way will it help you to feel successful?), and help them find a solution (how do you think you can change the outcome?)

Mistake #11: Don't invest in your volunteers.
Volunteers are often busy people who have a lot of things pulling them in a lot of directions.  If you want to keep a volunteer, make sure you show them that you value them by adding value to their life.  Help them grow: Give them new skills, new knowledge, train and equip them, and they will appreciate it.

Mistake #12: Think they don't need your leadership.
Some leaders tend to micro-manage, the other side of the spectrum are leaders who ask a volunteer to help, but then don't give them enough information to be successful. They are so hands-off, the volunteer feels as though they are floundering and have no positive or negative reinforcement that tells them if they are. Want them to do a job?  Give them the information and tools they need to do it effectively.

Mistake #13: Fail to Communicate your expectations clearly
Very similar to #12, this mistake happens frequently.  As a volunteer I need to know up-front what you need me to do.  Think about creating something helpful like a volunteer job description.  This is a careful balance with micro-management, but if you create a description that allows for "creative wiggle-room" your volunteers will feel cared for and more secure.  Does a task have a "due date"?  Make sure you put that in writing, and verbally confirm that your volunteer is aware of the time crunch.

Mistake #14: D R A M A
In many organizations, like PTAs and churches, often those who are coordinating volunteers are volunteers themselves.  Regardless if you are being paid, be professional in how you interact with the people around you.  PLEASE don't drag your volunteers into your complaining, gossiping, back-biting or behind the back criticizing of other volunteers; most people are aware that if you do this about someone else, you are likely to do it about them, it makes them feel unsafe. If you must rant, do it privately to a family member or trustworthy friend.  Seriously, save the drama for your mama.

Mistake #15: Forget that they are a volunteer 
You can have high expectations for volunteers, but not unless you communicate those expectations.  At the end of the day, remember that nobody is paying them the big bucks to do this job.  They are doing it out of the goodness of their heart, or out of some other positive impulse inside of them.  Don't yell at them, criticize them or be overly harsh with them, especially if you haven't followed through on #10-#13 above.

Volunteers can be hard to recruit, hard to empower and hard to retain, but if your attitude is positive and you are willing to treat them with common courtesy and respect, you will be far-beyond many organizations. Good luck.

What about you:  What do you do to encourage and affirm your volunteers?

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  1. Hi, thanks very much for this article. It confirms lots of our thoughts about valuing volunteers properly. At PTAsocial we also believe that more volunteers could be recruited if tasks are broken down into bite-sized chunks, so that a little can be asked from a lot of people. That way nobody gets overburdened, and more people have a little clearly assigned responsibility. What do you think about that approach?

  2. Mistake #16 Call a volunteer a leader or expect them to lead without first truly discussing it and without giving them the actual authority and backup they need to lead the ministry effort in question.


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