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Career Coach: Learn how to keep your volunteers engaged

By Joyce E.A. Russell,

Have you ever volunteered for a job in your neighborhood, with one of your child’s activities or with your local community center, excited to help out and provide your time and talent? But then, after the group’s first meeting, felt totally disempowered and frustrated?

So many organizations depend on volunteers to accomplish major activities, whether it be service, fundraising or clerical tasks. Many often do not get the full benefit out of their volunteers, and the leaders may not even realize it.

After talking with many individuals who volunteer their time for various associations and organizations, I saw common themes in how people felt disempowered:

Perhaps the leader of the organization recruits them but then turns them over to another volunteer who doesn’t know how to run meetings or keep people motivated.

Someone volunteers and is told they aren’t needed at all or are sent to an activity they didn’t express interest in. Others volunteer, only to be told about meetings at the last minute, making it difficult to participate.

When they do attend meetings and give input, it is glossed over as if they never made any comments at all (i.e., those in charge already have a set way of doing things, yet had previously asked for volunteers to give creative input). Or, during a brainstorming session, their ideas are heavily critiqued.

If there is someone in charge, that person does not know how to delegate and takes over all the activities, leaving the volunteers wondering why they even bothered to volunteer.

The person in charge is a micromanager and oversees everything the volunteers do, including the littlest details. I have heard that this is one of the greatest sources of frustrations for volunteers.

So, how can we keep our volunteers engaged and excited about contributing to our mission?

Have the leader of the organization communicate the vision and mission of the organization.

Be clear about what is expected in terms of time commitment and the type of work to be done (e.g., job description). Nothing is worse than telling someone they have five activities and then adding another 10 to their plate. That’s a sure way to get them to drop out the following year. Ambiguity of their role is also a sure way to get them to feel burnout and confusion.

Find out why the person is volunteering, and think about ways you can help them meet their own goals. Maybe they want to volunteer in order to help the cause, develop their own abilities, achieve personal growth, learn new skills, meet people, do work that benefits their family, etc.

Keep them in the loop on decisions being made. I recently heard a leader of a volunteer organization say “it’s just easier if I make the decisions.” While this may be true, the volunteers will feel like they have nothing to contribute and will pull away.

Allow them to show some of their creativity. That’s why you wanted volunteers in the first place. Embrace a diversity of ideas.

Make sure leaders are available for support or guidance if it is needed. Provide contact information and times when you can be reached.

Common courtesy counts. Using “please,” “thank you,” and “great job” are certainly more motivational than holding an official swearing in (which one person told me happened at a recent volunteer planning meeting).

Make sure you are aware of the team dynamics among the volunteers. Many people have told me there were more politics and backstabbing in some of their volunteer groups than in their work organizations. Who needs that stress?

Let people know they are appreciated by providing small perks for meetings such as coffee, water and snacks.

Make sure all volunteers get a chance to meet the others in their group. This builds a sense of community.

Recognize volunteers for their time and efforts. Thank them by name in the newsletter, the firm’s Web site or at a celebration event. Even small tokens like certificates, pins and flowers can mean a lot.

Show them how their work is having an impact on others.

We rely on volunteers for so many important organizations to run efficiently, and to accomplish critical things for the betterment of society. If only we could apply good business knowledge about effective leadership and running teams — we would get so much more out of our volunteers and their organizations, and they would feel like their time was well worth it.

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