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Second_stage_of_a_Delta_IV_Medium_rocketWhen Carrie accepted a position as a volunteer manager, she wasn’t sure if her degree in human resources management would translate well into her new job. “I was so excited to be managing volunteers,” she said. “I’ve always thought that volunteering was, well, noble and that anyone who would spend their time helping others for no gain was someone to be admired. I felt a real sense of purpose and immediately started doing research on working with volunteers so that I could do a good job.”
Carrie settled into her new role by combining her academic knowledge with talking to her volunteers and other volunteer managers in her area.
“I started to see that managing volunteers was both very similar to managing employees and at the same time very different. When you remove a paycheck from the equation, you take away the punitive aspect of management and even more challenging is you remove the set in stone job requirements. But you add more inspiration, more leadership, more connection to mission and personal motivations. It opens up all kinds of doors to getting to know and engage people.”
The one thing that Carrie found disconcerting was the lack of understanding of her role. “There’s a lot of misconceptions about volunteer management and its hard to make people see the challenges we face. What I’ve experienced is that volunteer retention takes many forms, and sometimes what looks like fun is really working at having fun.”
Carrie recalls the day she was playfully teasing a couple of regular volunteers. “I was kidding our volunteer, Ada, about an upcoming trip she was going to be taking. Ada loves to joke and have a good time but her work ethic is second to none. As we were laughing, the Vice President came into the room and the look on her face just said so much. She looked at me and said, ‘well, it’s nice to know someone’s having a fun time’. Before I could say anything, she was gone. I felt horrible and Ada asked me if she had gotten me into trouble. I hate it that Ada heard that remark and frankly, we didn’t deserve that. She may have thought that I was just having fun and not working, but what she didn’t realize was that I was just doing my job.”

Volunteer retention is often more complex than the second stage engine of a Delta IV rocket. Each volunteer’s needs are nuanced and individual. No two volunteers are exactly alike in the things that motivate them and keep them coming back. While there are universal givens like recognition, meaningful work and clear direction, we can’t ever rely solely on the obvious. Those obvious volunteer retention building blocks are the basis for the more complex work we do by learning what really drives our volunteers. Does Jane like to work alone? Does Sam like to socialize with like-minded volunteers? Does Avery look for continuous feedback and does Cristobal need to use his artistic skills?

I remember a volunteer Maureen, who came to give back said, “whatever you have for me to do is fine. I’m really good at office work and I just want to help.” Now, I’ve learned that those words are a volunteer coordinator’s dream, but they’re not necessarily the whole truth. Even the volunteer who utters them may not realize that underneath the offer is the desire to find what truly keeps them coming back, so it becomes our job to find that secondary reason. Maureen began volunteering by making phone calls because that’s what was needed. But then I noticed she was missing her shift and so we talked. I found out Maureen did not enjoy making the phone calls so I asked her to try data entry. Maureen didn’t like that either and as I observed her, I noticed that she found ways to go back and interact with a group of volunteers who worked in the kitchen of the care center. I asked her to help these volunteers one day and saw an immediate change in her satisfaction. As we talked about this new job, she gushed about the group of volunteers and how much she enjoyed working with them. I asked her to “temporarily” help the kitchen volunteers and she agreed. Months later, she has found her spot. She is happy because not only did she want to help, she wanted to be social as well.

But where does fun fit into all of this talk of retention? I spent years struggling with trying to walk a fine line between having productive fun with volunteers and becoming silly and irrelevant. Does fun diminish the serious work we do? Do volunteers who want to enjoy themselves miss the point? If a volunteer were to say, “I had fun today,” would that be a failure on my part?
Something occurred to me one day while trying to explain volunteer management to an acquaintance. I said that volunteer retention consisted of creating a positive experience for the volunteer. It dawned on me that fun was a component of that positive experience. Not fun in the sense that there’s no serious work to be done, but fun that bubbles up from the true joy in helping. In thinking of all the words I identified with a positive volunteer experience, like meaning, satisfaction, enjoyment, inspiration, fulfillment, I used to dismiss fun as too frivolous. But now, when I see volunteers having fun, I view it as just another indication that the volunteers are satisfied.

So, the next time you feel guilty for having a laugh with a volunteer, do not look over your shoulder to see if someone is questioning your work ethic. Bask in the moment for it is a heart full of joy that gives the most.