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In a volunteer manager’s chaotic day, volunteer impact is difficult to plan, hard to complete and often impossible to execute. We laughingly describe our chaos in phrases like, “herding cats,” “wearing many hats,” and “controlled chaos.” But, the inability to move ourselves and our volunteers forward due to chaos is no laughing matter.

I’d like to add another phrase to the lexicon: “Watering plastic flowers,” which means time spent on futile activities. But wait, futile is a strong word; it means “pointless,” or “incapable of producing results.”

So, let’s eliminate the word futile, because there’s always hope right? As volunteer managers, we hold hope in our hands: Hope for that volunteer who is hurting and wants to help, but keeps canceling. Hope that our impassioned speech about volunteer value changes minds. Hope that today we will fill a role no volunteer wants to do.

Instead, let’s look at ROI-return on investment. When our time investment does not produce enough results to continue, this doesn’t mean we must stop reaching out to that volunteer who never shows up; it means we have to weigh how much time we spend doing it.

And remember, for every minute we spend on something with little ROI, we miss spending that minute on something with a large ROI that has impact and moves us in the direction we want to go.

What steps can we take to determine where we should invest our time?

  • Volunteer ads: Analyze ads’ effectiveness and spend more time on effective ads. Relegate lesser producing ads to your office volunteers to manage. (and if you don’t have a team of volunteers helping you in every aspect of your job description, what the heck are you waiting for?)
  • Volunteers who are unreliable: Set a tolerance number-I will contact a volunteer X number of times and after no response, I will send them a letter/email/message thanking them, inviting them to contact us when ready.
  • Conflict challenges: If a challenging volunteer repeats egregious behaviors, craft a policy on expectations and stick to it. Make sure every volunteer is given a copy, reads and signs the copy and is aware of your policies and the final dismissal step.
  • Educating staff on the many aspects of volunteerism: Start with one important point and repeat, repeat, repeat; then build on that one concept. Too many concepts dilutes the ability to absorb it all.
  • Staff who improperly manage a volunteer’s time: Move the volunteer to a department that effectively engages volunteers. Make no apologies for moving volunteers to departments or positions that meet the volunteer’s needs.
  • Report, speak and substantiate the why: Want change? Infuse the why (specifics) into everything you say and do. For example, “We have an opportunity to partner with a local florist whose employees want to volunteer and potentially donate flowers, fund-raise for us and help advocate for our services. This will lead to other business partnerships so I need support from multiple departments.” Or, “I moved volunteer Tess to finance because her skills were underutilized in client records.”
  • Close your open door: Set aside planning time and remove yourself from distractions. With any repeated behavior, people will grow accustomed to “oh, yeah, Julie’s out right now. It’s planning time. She’ll be back in an hour.”

Overloaded volunteer managers have no time for weak ROI. Under our careful cultivation, we need flowers that bloom and grow into effective volunteer engagement and impact.

So, watch out for plastic flowers; they may look colorful, but water them all you want and they still won’t grow.

Instead, water the flowers blooming with impact and watch your garden grow into a lush volunteer initiative.