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So, last week, I posted a sharable holiday card for volunteers. Nice, huh, cause volunteers love getting cards from organizations, right? Cards mean we care, we appreciate (and we all know volunteer appreciation, no matter what it consists of, especially if it involves balloons, is the key to volunteer retention), we go the extra mile to engage our volunteers. What could be wrong with that?

Volunteers love getting cards, right?

Funny thing. Ironically, as I was sitting at my desk, on my laptop, posting the volunteer card, I was also looking at a pile of holiday cards I received from various nonprofits I’ve volunteered for. And my reaction to some of them? I just laughed. (Not the intended reaction, I’m sure)

I laughed because I’ve been inactive at some nonprofits. I’ve not been contacted, surveyed, or asked what I’d like to do or heaven forbid, why I am not volunteering anymore. I’ve not been offered any “opportunities.” I basically sit on a list, like countless other volunteers. My name is a number.

But, it’s my job, isn’t it?

I have to admit, I’ve been mindlessly guilty of thinking cards mean the same thing to every volunteer. I’d think “hey, I HAVE to keep in touch with each and every person that even so much as breathed the words, “what’s this volunteering about?” I’d think, “how can I keep my hooks into this prospective volunteer?” And I also thought, “if I send this pretty card, surely that will make this inactive (or grieving or ill or suffering or unsure) volunteer whip out their phone and give me a jingle.”

I could picture that volunteer, gazing at the glittery goodness, thinking, “wow, I’ve been so selfish. I need to contact Meridian. It doesn’t matter that the department she assigned me to never followed through. She’ll get me something better, I just know it!”

So what if the message doesn’t resonate, it’s a pretty card!

I knew a CEO who thought that volunteers would feel special getting cards signed personally by her. Never mind she rarely interacted with volunteers during the year.

As a volunteer, I look at the cards from certain organizations as a waste of time and money. I actually feel that instead of connecting me to the organization, it has the opposite effect. The tone-deaf mindset alienates me further.

So, don’t send cards? No, send them, but not mindlessly. Some of the cards I received included timely messages about the organization’s work. I find that more engaging than a simple signature. But a message to me as an active volunteer when I’m not, is tone-deaf.

If I haven’t volunteered of late, messages such as “and thank you for volunteering this year,” reinforces the perception that the organization does not know me, nor cares to. Do I want to volunteer for them now? Eh, probably not, especially if I’ve not felt engaged when I did volunteer.

In simple math, more volunteers=more work

Once there are more than 30-40 volunteers, the ability to track them personally diminishes, which is why every volunteer manager needs his/her own volunteer administrative help to keep track of each volunteer’s status. Then, cards can work when a more personal message is included.

And you know what? If one of the holiday cards I received had simply said, “We miss you,” I’d have felt like they were talking directly to me. I’d have felt guilty, intrigued, pleased, and motivated by those 3 simple words. Keep your glittery goodness. I want to be acknowledged as a human being.

Glitter or Connection? Um, connection please!

I’m involved with a start-up. I’m not getting a card from them. They have no regular meetings, no luncheon and drat, there are no balloons, ever. Everything is chaos. But you know what? They know me. That’s my glittery goodness.

Managing personal connections with volunteers is not easy. It’s not simple. It’s not perfect. However, we can chip away at tone-deaf messages by looking at the causes and by forming solutions such as,

  • I have too many volunteers to keep track of personally: It’s easy to connect with volunteers who are outgoing, give a lot, are dependable, communicate, ask questions etc. Connecting with the rest of the volunteer team is challenging. Get volunteer administrative help now. Once I did that, things got better. A whole heap better. Here’s my complicated math equation. Every 25-50 volunteers=1 part-time volunteer administrative helper. I also had one designated volunteer to manage prospective volunteers. (she was so busy, she came in twice weekly. But you know what? More prospective volunteers followed through, thanks to her communication skills)
  • I’m unsure of volunteer preferences: Use surveys, whether informal or formal. Explain why you are surveying the volunteer-“because we want your experience to be a meaningful one. It’s a win-win for us, for you and for the people we serve.”
  • volunteers come and go, so I don’t know who is active, inactive, temporarily unavailable and I can’t create personal messages for everyone: Fair enough, so pay attention to language. What message would resonate or at least not sound tone-deaf? What would an active volunteer, an inactive volunteer and a volunteer who wants to be active, but can’t, all want to hear? Maybe scrap “thank you for volunteering,” and say something like, “every volunteer has contributed to our successes in our fight to eradicate homelessness” or “volunteerism is at the heart of our work and we want to acknowledge your contribution, past, present and hopefully, future.”
  • I can’t always know that a volunteer is sick, or their loved one died, or they got laid off: We can’t, and although it pains us, all we can do is be honest. “I didn’t know. You are valuable and we want to know your status, not because we want something from you, but because you are one of us.”
  • some volunteers are not returning calls, emails etc: This goes against every fiber of our volunteer manager hearts, but send the volunteers who are MIA a letter/email/card/call letting them know that they are welcome back anytime they wish to rejoin, but you are removing them from further volunteer updates. Then, remove them from the volunteer list. (OMG, it hurts to type “remove” and volunteer in the same sentencenooooooooooooo.) Keep them on general lists, because you want that volunteer to continue to be an advocate for your organization.

To send cards, or not to send cards

Are we sending cards because it’s always been done this way? It’s tradition? I’m not saying don’t send, but how much in volunteer management is done because it’s always been done this way? It’s time to re-think volunteer engagement messaging, language and methods.

What resonates with your volunteers? 2020 has given us the opportunity to change the way we engage volunteers. As the leader of volunteer engagement and impact, look at everything with a fresh eye. You got this.

Oh, BTW, here’s the holiday card I’ve always wanted to send:

let’s be real