Suki is an events coordinator and part-time volunteer manager.
She says, “I work hard, oftentimes 50 to 60 hours a week. I treat the volunteers as essential team members and make sure they are respected. I have a better than average return rate as my volunteers come back time and time again to help with events.
My supervisor, Ellen just conducted my yearly review. One of my areas to work on was follow-up. I was shocked. I follow-up with each and every volunteer. I follow-up with vendors, locations, donors and staff. I asked her where that “needs improvement” came from and when pressed, she said it was because one of our managers overheard a group of volunteers mention that they weren’t sure which assignments they had at an event last year. I told Ellen that the banquet manager had changed a few things last-minute and that I was sorting it out at the time of the comment. I mean, seriously, I would think all of my other hard work should stand for itself.”
Sadly, Suki, no it does not. And here’s the lesson. What we think should be obvious to everyone never really is. We work hard to engage and cultivate volunteers. Isn’t that evident? Ehhh, maybe not. Let’s compare a couple of scenarios and see if they are obvious to everyone.
- An excellent volunteer is not sure if he wants to continue. He comes in to see you and you get coffee or tea for both of you. (a sign that he is worthy of your undivided attention). You sit at a table and listen to all his concerns. You take the time to explore what is going on in his life. You laugh, you listen, you probe, you assure him and with some tweaking of schedules or duties, you retain him. Obvious, right? But what does this actually look like?
To you: One hour spent upfront retaining an essential volunteer = hundreds of hours of quality work from that volunteer.
To observer: The volunteer manager has time to sit around and have coffee for an hour with a volunteer that really doesn’t need managing because they are already a great volunteer. Why can’t I get a volunteer when I need one?
- One of your volunteers invites you to her daughter’s college soccer game. You go because you are going to meet the coach who is interested in having the entire team participate in volunteer activities.
To you: This is a chance to recruit a group of volunteers. It’s an opportunity to set up a program that could last year after year. It also could be an in to an entire college system with access to other teams, clubs, classes etc. It’s a huge opportunity.
To observer: The volunteer manager hangs out with her volunteers. She’s been seen going to birthday celebrations, picnics and now team sports. She runs the volunteer department like a sorority. We need volunteers who come to work, not to socialize.
So, what do we do if our hard work is not self-explanatory? We must advocate for ourselves and our profession. We must become better at explaining the cultivation of volunteers. Whether we use algorithms or stories or a daily work flow, we need to be able to translate our work into concrete facts.
How do we do that? Well, we can try:
Create signs for your office door or cubicle that read “Volunteer Interview in Progress” or “Volunteer Engagement in Progress” or “Volunteer Feedback in Progress.” Put them on your door when sitting with any volunteer for a session.
Develop a chart to track the hours needed to engage volunteers for maximum output. Does it take four or twelve or twenty hours spent one on one with a volunteer to produce two hundred volunteer hours a year? (approximately 4 hours per week) How many volunteers do you manage? Add all those engagement hours to show how much one on one time it takes to retain valuable volunteers.
Begin to label your work. Instead of using terms such as “spent time with” or “sat down with” label the time spent with volunteers as retention, development, engagement, targeted recruiting, gathering feedback, role definitions, corrective action etc. Creating an understanding of the nuances of our work as essential building blocks is crucial. Our time spent with volunteers is necessary to volunteer development and it’s time we referred to this work in professional terms.
While we are obviously super nice to our volunteers, we are nice with a purpose. Our profession must redefine our work to elevate it in terms of professional development. Calling the “spending of time” with a volunteer “targeted recruitment” does not change our methods, only the misconception of our work.
And why should we frame everything we do in professionalism? So it does become obvious.