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Brad sighed. “I haven’t had a response from our volunteer, Ashwan in several months. He hasn’t answered emails or phone calls, or come to our monthly meetings. He was a good one. I just don’t know what happened. Did we do anything wrong?”

This frustration ranks up there along with wondering why I was never employee of the year. Why do good volunteers fade away? Why don’t they tell us the truth about why they leave? Why aren’t they honest with us? We’re really nice people and we listen, right?

Well, maybe because we need to be more than honest with volunteers right from the start. We need to be honestly honest.  Oh sure, we say to them, “hey, this volunteering might not be for everyone,” but doesn’t that just smack a bit of sanctimonious superiority? Doesn’t that just have an undercurrent of “oh, our volunteering is only for the good volunteers, and that’s probably not you?” If someone said that to me, I’d be looking for the nearest door and planning my exit move too.

Maybe the breathy tales of our great volunteers can be a bit, well, off-putting for new volunteers. Who wants to have to live up to a Gandhi or a Mother Teresa?

Maybe, instead of peppering our new volunteer training with story after story of long-term volunteer successes, we could also talk about volunteers who leave and how that’s ok.

Maybe we could say things like:

“Take our volunteer Shirley for example. She only stayed with us for three months, but we are so grateful for those three months. We still keep in touch with her. No matter how much or long you are with us, when you’re done, you’re done. Only you know when that is. And that’s ok. All volunteers leave and each volunteer that leaves has made a huge difference and trust me, we are grateful for each one.”

“Volunteer Craig left after he tried a few different positions and found that they weren’t what he was looking for. Let’s be honestly honest here. We MAY FAIL YOU. Yes, that’s right, we may not intend to, but we may seem to take you for granted, or fail to use your skills. We’re human too and we want to fix things, for you and for other volunteers, so please, tell us when something is not right, because we are not perfect. Craig discussed this with us and we fixed some things because he shared his experience.”

“Believe it or not, we don’t expect you to stay forever! And believe it or not, losing interest or moving on is something we experience all the time. That happened with our student volunteer, Sheri. She finished her degree and moved on. She got what she wanted from her experience here and took those skills with her when she left. That’s great! You are growing and changing and so are we. Nothing remains the same and if you find yourself feeling restless and wanting to move on, let us know. We want to have the opportunity to talk about it with you. Please don’t rob us of the chance to say thank you.”

“If you find volunteering elsewhere a better fit for you, let us know so we can send a great recommendation along with you. All volunteering is good work and we are not in competition with other organizations. Our volunteer Marvin found that another organization was a better fit for him. We were so pleased that he took his volunteering to the next level. He comes back and helps us with special events and we love to hear about how he’s doing.”

Every volunteer leaves a lasting impression on us. And while we strive to make volunteers comfortable with us, they may not be comfortable enough to share the reasons they leave. They may just think that our conception of a good volunteer revolves around how long they stay. Then, when they fade away, we lie awake and night and wonder why.

So why not be honestly honest from the beginning and try to make it easier on them. And ultimately, easier on us too.