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I answered the phone one day to hear, “Yes, this is Juan, the son of Adelia and I just received an invitation in the mail for my mom to this year’s volunteer luncheon. She died. Last year. I thought I’d let you know.”

“Ohhhhhh, crap.”

I also vividly remember sitting at a sign-in table for an invitation only event attended by donors, volunteers and dignitaries. And I looked up to see the volunteer we dismissed two months before presenting the invite we sent him.

Countless volunteer managers have said that the first thing they had to do when they came on-board at their organizations, was purge hundreds of volunteer names off the list.

We have a difficult challenge because we don’t manage employees. Employees are either in or out. They’re working or they’re not.  They don’t get paid once they quit, move, get fired or die. They are removed from rosters and lists and don’t get official invitations or phone calls. They don’t get calls asking them to “please, just come in for a few hours because we need extra help this week.” Nope, doesn’t happen. We can’t do that. Our volunteers don’t get paid. They exist in a grey area. And we work hard to keep our volunteers engaged enough in this grey area so they return again and again.

We worry that if we remove a volunteer due to temporary inactivity, we will forget to contact them and therefore, lose them permanently. I remember the thought of forgetting good volunteers was more horrifying to me than leaving my stove on.

But when can we remove volunteers from an active list? After six months, two years, death? The problem with keeping volunteers who are not active on an active list, is we can’t give an accurate volunteer count. If we say we have 125 volunteers, then staff assumes we have 125 volunteers to choose from when they make a request. That’s far different from choosing from 60 currently active volunteers.

So, how can we keep volunteers, yet not confuse temporarily inactive volunteers with active ones?

  • Enlist the help of a key volunteer. Ask your volunteer to help maintain a current list by making check-in phone calls. Not only will you be able to distinguish who is active at the moment, you can ask the key volunteer to conduct an informal survey on satisfaction, training, communication or any other topic. And this periodic “checking in” will flesh out problems before they get out of hand.
  • Send the volunteer newsletter to all volunteers. Keep everyone in the loop. Newsletters are great for showcasing new projects, calls to action and for encouraging inactive volunteers to get involved again.
  • Remove the “quitting” stigma. Assure volunteers that you don’t view stepping back as quitting. Show them you have other volunteers on a temporarily inactive list and explain there are many reasons for volunteers to step back. Encourage them to take time they need and let them know you will be checking in with them periodically because they are valued.
  • Keep several lists or use templates that allow you to sort. I’m a big proponent of categorizing volunteers by locale, assignment, training completed, and current availability. It gives a much clearer picture than putting all names on one list. We wouldn’t expect all staff to be listed as substitutes for social workers or accountants. (“Hey, call accounts payable and see if one of their staff can come and do wound care for a day.”) It’s no different with volunteers. If your volunteers need specialized training for an assignment, then just like staff, only those volunteers who have had the training should be in that category.

Leading volunteers casts a much wider net than managing employees. You don’t hear the phrase “episodic employees” for a reason. Volunteers drop in and out, and some hover on the periphery. (for a take on periphery, see https://volunteerplaintalk.com/2017/09/06/the-volunteer-periphery/ )

We don’t have to fear leaving the volunteer stove on. Organizing volunteer lists gives us an accurate count. Seeking help in keeping up with periphery volunteers gives us the freedom to concentrate on our vision.

And, the next time you hear, “hey you’ve got 150 volunteers, why is it so hard to find one for my request,” you can counter with: “We have 200 staff here. Let’s say your mother is a client. Would you be comfortable if one of our counselors was out and they asked me to conduct a mental health evaluation on your mom? Of course not, and that’s why all 150 volunteers aren’t available for your request.”

We don’t want volunteers treated as interchangeable tools so it’s up to us to make our volunteer lists understandable while keeping temporarily inactive volunteers in the loop.

Episodic employees? Now wouldn’t that be a challenge?