I have have found working with volunteers to be so complex and this avenue (blog) does not lend itself to complex issues, that I nearly didn't address it at all. But, in the spirit of 'finishing what I start', I've decided to, in a small way, address the animal most at risk - the volunteer.
As much as I would like to say working with non-profits, charities and organizations is a rewarding experience - which it is - it can also be a frustrating one, as many hundreds of thousands of volunteers have found out. It can also be frustrating for the person responsible for recruiting volunteers.
To be sure, many organizations wouldn't get things done without volunteers, however, voluntarism in general has dropped. Why is that the case?
Judging from the stories I've heard and work I've done with these types of organizations there are three main reasons I've identified for volunteer apathy and/or attrition. Communication, Resources, Briefing and Debriefing.
Communication I suppose, I could start and stop here as communication is the primary key to any successful organization.
Inevitably, in most situations, someone will be left out of the loop or their job will not be explained fully to them or they have no go-to person when things go wrong.
Communication here is imperative. Your volunteer feels like the proverbial 'scapegoat' as things go wrong and go wrong they will, so what happens? The volunteer says "I don't need this" and moves on. Now the organization is minus a volunteer and has to expend valuable energy recruiting replacements.
Briefings are short, if they happen at all and debriefings, well, let's forget about those entirely as volunteers are tired following an event and would rather just go home. Staff would rather start focusing on the next project and hope it goes better.
And, as for incompatible working relationships, we don't even want to go there. Ignore it and it'll go away - the volunteer, that is!
As any 5 year old can tell you, ignoring a problem will not make it go away. Ignoring it creates the ability for the problem to replicate; with lightning speed!
If your organization is heavily dependent on volunteers and you don't want to lose them to another organization, create an atmosphere compatible with their needs. Understanding that effective communication is key to success - essential!
Your volunteer resources should be considered gold! Anyone who tries recruiting volunteers knows the difficulty in locating good people to fill positions. If a volunteer for a previous event has had a bad experience, you may have lost a resource.
Go-to people are the people who know what's going on and are able to facilitate the jobs of their volunteers. Usually, volunteers are provided with the basic tools to get their jobs done, however, there are always unanticipated issues that crop up. For this and other issues, there should be a person to 'go to'. Someone who can answer the questions the volunteer may have and eliminate any anxiety they may feel. Dealing with volunteers is not like dealing with other staff members. They usually work within narrow parameters and their knowledge base is limited to their particular function. Within the confines of a single room this is not a problem, however, the same cannot be said for an event where there is a vast area (park, track meet etc.) and/or where several conference rooms are involved. At these types of events, the role of a 'go to' person becomes imperative to the volunteer. This person should not be a wanderer or outside the ability of anyone to contact them. Too often the event planner is acting like a butterfly, flitting from one situation to the next, not anywhere near the volunteer station and unable to address issues as they present themselves. Volunteers need to know where to find this person, and, if for any reason they can't find them, there should be a central location (volunteer centre) where they can get answers and/or assistance.
Briefing and DebriefingBriefings provide excellent opportunities for communication of execution details for the planned event. This is not the time to start making the plan - communicating the how is what should be happening here. Having your volunteer team understand the how and why of the event is important to their actions. Answer their questions. Better yet - ask some questions. There may be some who aren't comfortable asking questions without an invitation to do so. Or, if they are new to your organization, may not know what questions to ask. Anticipating this and preempting their issues could go a long way to ensuring you have experienced volunteers for your next event.
Follow-up the event with a debriefing as soon as possible. More information is available while memories are still fresh and emotions raw (depending on their experience with the event). For those who don't feel comfortable expressing complaints, allow them an anonymous submission avenue. This is especially important if you are not planning to hold your debriefing session within the first week following the event. If you provide enough methods to receive feed-back and have a system in place to follow-up, you'll probably get all the information you need to improve delivery for your next event. Use the information you receive to tweak your approach to either your event or your volunteers or both. Retaining experienced volunteers while recruiting new ones is more preferable to starting from scratch with every event.
Of course there are other reasons for losing volunteers as well, work, age and availability to name a few. Whatever the reason, if we don't get a handle on the reasons we're losing our volunteers, we won't be able to reverse the trend. If numbers of volunteers lost is significant, some services, events, community programs etc. could not be run and would be lost. Ensuring our volunteers are valued, their time is appreciated and their contribution recognized, is essential!
Posted by Catherine Walton. Posted In : Committment