Carla answered my volunteers wanted ad and arrived for our interview early, her potential shining like the buttons on her business suit. She was one of those “oh my gosh, how did I get so lucky” volunteers. Sadly, my organization wasn’t ready for her extensive management skills, but I happily slotted her at the front desk. Bingo, the front desk had a professional-looking person representing us and, gotta be honest, she made me look good for “finding” her.

Meanwhile, one of the volunteer managers in my peer group was recruiting volunteers for a start-up. He needed a volunteer who could help manage fledgling projects. I immediately thought of Carla. Did I offer to ask her if she would be interested in helping him? Nope, I kept her to myself. After all, I found her,(yeah, ok, she found us, but hey, I wrote that clever attention grabbing ad) trained her, supported her, right? After all that work? She was mine. And if I sent her away, then, whoa I’d have to put a less polished volunteer on the front desk and suffer the ire of my superiors, so I held on to her like a half-eaten surfboard in a sea of sharks.

Hatch and keep, right?

A few years later, when outstanding patient volunteer Yosef started to pass on assignments, I knew he was reaching his shelf life with us. I carried guilt from the whole Carla thing (yeah, I know, guilt is bad, blah, blah, bur we, volunteer managers do feel guilty over stuff at times, and that time I was truly guilty of hoarding) and so Yosef and I started looking for an even more challenging volunteer position (yep, offered him all sorts of leadership roles, but none excited him in the way patient volunteering had). He ended up jumping to child advocacy and thrived. And guess what, I felt great about it because he incubated his volunteering with us (just wished I had put that into my reports).

Brittany McGarry, who recently shared her wisdoms on the VPT podcast, (you can listen here) does this incredible mapping a volunteer’s journey. We want our volunteers to aspire to do more, to be more and we have to be comfortable with letting them sprout wings in order for them to succeed. We should be proud of them when they leave us because they have become so good at volunteering, they move up, whether that occurs within our organizations, or they join a new mission.

When a volunteer moves up in our organization, we are understandably proud of our hand in incubating them, but when they move to another nonprofit, we may feel like we’ve failed to retain (I hate the word retention, BTW) them. We can’t record their hours. We can’t rely on them to drop everything and come in when we’re desperate. We feel we’ve lost, because our jobs are to get and keep volunteers, right?

Volunteers are always temporary

We have to stop the misconception that volunteers are possessions, and until we throw them out, they will keep coming back up to the moment they wear out or die. Instead, let’s speak of volunteers as temporary from the start. They are with us for the time that benefits us and them, not forever or until we dump them. Let’s speak about the privilege to have them for one event, one week, one season or one year. Never forever.

Fleeting is more always precious

If volunteers are viewed as permanent fixtures, why bother working hard to keep them? But if we know they are fleeting, it makes sense to work hard to engage them. Their worth increases because they will leave. We must change the lexicon and use “volunteers are temporary” verbiage to change the perception. Simple shifts in language, such as:

  • “while they are with us, our volunteers will…”
  • “as long as they are engaged, they can…”
  • “we are privileged they are sharing their time with us for now, but it won’t be forever.”
  • “for the time they were here, they did xyz”
  • “they moved to a better fit for them and we had a hand in developing their love for volunteering. What a win for everyone!”
  • “yes, they moved on, but they remain advocates for our mission because we made sure their needs were met on an even par with our needs.”
  • “they haven’t closed the door on us because, as advocates, they will continue to us in other ways.”
  • “we are investing in each volunteer so our community benefits. That makes us leaders in sustainable volunteering.”
  • “volunteers don’t leave us, they just change the way they support us.”
  • “volunteering is only one way someone advocates for our mission.”

Volunteering teaches volunteers about… volunteering

Each time a person volunteers, they learn something about volunteering. What might they learn in a coop?

  • They expect me to treat this like a job.
  • I have to wait until they find a fit for me.
  • It’s about their needs, not mine.
  • Supporting the mission means doing the grunt work.
  • There is no upward movement.
  • They like me, but don’t include me in things that matter.
  • I’m not in control of my volunteering.
  • I have to be flexible, but they don’t.
  • Sometimes I’m not important.
  • They talk team, but I’m not included, not really.
  • I’m a commodity.

Volunteers don’t stop helping because they leave us

Volunteering is more fluid than in years past. Citizen helpers (think the people who rush to help neighbors during a crisis) thrive because they learn that volunteering means immediate action and immediate results. Then, when they sign up to formally volunteer, they discover that volunteering is cumbersome, drawn out, rigid, and limited. And when a volunteer leaves our organization for those reasons, they don’t stop helping, they just stop formally helping our organization.

I realize we can’t just scrap all our systems in place. But what we can do, is chip away at archaic conceptions of volunteering. We can point out that fluid volunteers move between informal and formal, between organizations, between activity and inactivity. We can ditch terms such as retention (Bleeeech), permanent (that’s a hoot, right?), even long-term volunteers and move towards fluid terms such as active and inactive, advocate vs. former volunteer (see reject a volunteer, gain an advocate).

Incubate vs. coop

We, volunteer managers are good at helping one another. We support each other in peer groups, in forums, in phone calls and zoom meetings. We believe that by helping one another, we help ourselves too.

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

Our community pool of volunteers is there for us to nurture, engage and incubate. By ending the ancient “My volunteers” sentiment, we let go of the struggle to retain a volunteer at all cost. We put the volunteers’ needs on an even par with organizational needs which creates a symbiotic system that not only sustains volunteers, but creates a replenished garden. (more in my book, The Disruptive Volunteer Manager). And it strengthens our partnerships with our fellow volunteer managers, because we are helping one another regrow our volunteer common. (see Innovation and Sustainable Volunteering).

We are in an unprecedented change era, so let’s make changes that work for us and our volunteers, are forward thinking and position our profession to lead. It’s time for us to be leaders of a sustainable volunteer movement.

We’ll thank ourselves later.