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“Uh Meridian, you really blew it! You missed a whole point about corporate volunteers,” a friend of mine said on the phone a couple of days ago. “You talked about thanking groups and connecting them to the work, which is great, but you completely forgot a big one and guess what? It just happened to me.”

Ouch. What did I forget? Tell me what happened.

“Well, it was our corporate retreat and twenty of us just completed a one day team building volunteer event at a local organization.”

That’s great. How did it go and what did I miss?

“Well, it was ok for the most part, but honestly we’ve done other projects and had better experiences.”

What went wrong?

“Well, nothing went really wrong, but let me explain. We all drove to an organization that gives cribs to families in need. Our firm had purchased about forty unassembled cribs and we drove to this warehouse to put together the cribs we bought.”

And how did that go?

“Well, we were met by the woman in charge. She kind of acted like we were interrupting her day. She gave us some quick directions and left. She would come and go. But there was something that bothered me a lot. She kept getting the name of our firm wrong. And she kept referring to us as bankers. None of us are bankers. Our company is an accounting firm. Granted, we work in the financial industry, but we are not bankers. It just felt like she didn’t even take the time to learn who we are or what we do. I mean, we reached out to her organization, why didn’t she ask a few questions? I felt, I don’t know… used. Am I being too sensitive and picky?”

No, my friend you are not being too picky. Because if a group walks away from a project feeling like they were just ancillary labor, then the next time they look for a project, they will most likely look elsewhere. Pure and simple. We can argue all we want that a group is too needy, or picky, or they just don’t understand. The feeling they walk away with will determine whether or not they come back.

It all boils down to: Do we want them to come back? Do we want them to spread a good word? Do we want them to become partners or champions or supporters? If not, then we should not waste their time or ours. That’s why limiting episodic volunteer groups to a manageable number versus taking everyone is the better way to go.

And since I did miss that big one when listing things we can do to connect our group volunteers to our projects and missions, let’s list it now.

  • Learn something about the group. At least we can call them by their correct name. We can know a little about their work. (an application process asking pointed questions should help)
  • Be genuinely curious about the people who are helping. Ask questions throughout the duration of the project. Let them tell you who they are, what they value etc. This also helps you to tailor your stories and feedback to fit within their culture.
  • Send a follow up survey and gather feedback on the project. Ask questions to help you hone future group projects.
  • Thank them for their input. So much research has been done on the increased by-in of groups who participate in planning and improving work conditions. Why not apply this to episodic volunteers and encourage them to help you plan new projects by asking for feedback?

Connecting episodic volunteers to our missions ensures they walk away as new supporters.

But, after all, we can take our own advice when engaging episodic volunteers. They’re people, not tools.