Appreciation challengeAs a leader of a non-profit organization, you will have many opportunities to utilize volunteer help. Not only do volunteers help an organization save money on paid staff, but they also become a vital part of the overall personality of the group.

In order to retain your current volunteers and to recruit new ones to your team, you need to have a well-developed commitment to appreciating all the service a volunteer gives. This commitment means more than just writing a thank you note, though that is a given.

I believe that in order to truly appreciate someone, you will have to do a number of things to your overall environment that will facilitate the volunteer having a quality experience.

1. Be Organized
First of all, it is important to remember that a volunteer, just like anybody else, is going to form opinions about you and your organization. One of the worst things a volunteer can see is chaos at an event or activity he or she is involved with. While the volunteer may never say anything negative to you, the opinion that yours is a disorganized group could stick and ultimately dissuade him or her from volunteering again. Remember, a person’s time is limited and valuable.

2. Have a Plan
In addition to being organized in a general sense, make sure that you have a specific plan set for each volunteer. Your person shouldn’t show up to an activity and ask you “Where should I go?” and you have no idea. Again, this will have a negative impact on the volunteer’s perception of your organization. Sometimes, the plan can be crafted with a volunteer’s specialty in mind, but at the very least, you should have generic job descriptions set up, in detail, for anyone to step in and fill.

3. Have a Back-Up Plan
There’s an old expression: “You’re only as good as your Plan B”. You, as the organization’s leader should have at least one back-up plan for each volunteer in case of inclement weather, a technical problem that prevents completion of a certain task, the absence of another volunteer, or whatever the case may be. If for whatever reason, your volunteer comes up to you in the middle of the day and needs re-assignment, you need to be ready to act smoothly and confidently, or else that volunteer could conclude you don’t have your act together.

4. Introduce Volunteers to Each Other
One of the reasons that people volunteer is to meet other, like-minded people. Keep this in mind when you are making job assignments. Unless it is for a specific reason, I wouldn’t have a volunteer work all alone. First of all, volunteers require a certain level of supervision, but secondly, it’s no fun to be by yourself.

You should also be cognizant of the people you pair up. Don’t put people tighter who have obvious differences. While it’s good to get to know all kinds of people, you also want to find volunteers who have something in common, so that they can build a bond.

5. Run a Solid Organization
While there are many reasons for running a solid organization, I would put forward a simple truth: solid organizations attract solid volunteers. Shaky organizations attract shaky volunteers. If you believe that volunteers can be of importance to your group, by all means, get the best volunteers. However, the only way to do this is to be an exemplary organization.

6. Take Security Seriously
One of the hallmarks of a good leader is providing a secure environment for his or her participants, staff, and volunteers. This means making sure that all personal records taken from the volunteers for things like background checks are securely filed away. It means making sure that volunteers’ belongings are stored in a secure location while they are working for you, and it means that you create an atmosphere in which all volunteers are valued and appreciated for their commitment and sacrifice.

7. Take Safety Seriously
One of the worst things that can happen during an activity is that a volunteer is injured or becomes ill as a result of something negligent on the organization’s part. It is incumbent upon you, the leader, to make sure the job site area is free from potential or real hazards. If there is any transportation involved with your volunteers, you must also ensure the vehicle is road-worthy and the driver is properly certified.

While the above paragraph references physical safety, there is also a person’s emotional safety to consider. While it is highly unusual that one volunteer would purposely insult or malign another volunteer, it can happen. Sometimes, just joking around on a jobsite can cause someone pain and distress. Therefore, you must keep a continual eye on all your volunteer activities and make sure everyone is getting along and staying on the safe side.

8. Make The Experience Fun
While you are busy getting organized and providing a safe and secure environment, don’t forget to have some fun along the way. The volunteers need to see you, the leader, relaxed and enjoying the day. Even if this means you have to fake it, it is important not to let the stresses of your job interfere with the volunteer experience. The volunteers likely have stresses all their own, and they absolutely do not want to get caught up in the drama of the place they choose to spend their volunteer time. If you, yourself, are not a “fun” person, or you are going through a particularly stressful time, make sure you get a surrogate to run the day for you, who will represent the organization as you would, but with a smiley face!

9. Make Sure Volunteers Have a High-Impact Experience
So far, we’ve talked a lot about the quality of the volunteer’s experience. And we’re not through yet. For the best way to make sure a volunteer feels appreciated, is to make sure he or she has the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution for the organization. The definition of “meaningful contribution” is going to differ from person to person, but keep this in mind when you are assigning tasks. If you have a volunteer who is also a certified electrician and charges $75 per hour in his real job, don’t stick him on the lawnmower. Let him use his brain and skills to improve your facilities. He will feel that he had a greater impact for the group and is more likely to return.

If your organization specializes in helping disadvantaged children, make sure that most, if not all, your volunteers have at lease one opportunity to interact with a child. Ultimately that would be the reason why a person volunteers. Make sure he or she can fulfill that original desire to make a real and profound difference.

10. Don’t Treat a Volunteer Like You Do an Employee
This point is especially true of repeat volunteers. People who come to serve your organization once or more per week quickly become a fixture around your group. And like staff members who are paid to show up every day, it becomes very easy to take these regular volunteers for granted.

Remember, your individual staff members went through an interview process and orientation training. They receive a regular paycheck for their efforts. Volunteers are giving of themselves- their time, their talent, and often of their money. In order to show how much you appreciate your volunteers, remember this fact when talking to them, when assigning them jobs, when thanking them, and when you are addressing others.

Part Two of “Volunteer Appreciation” tomorrow…

This article is part of the Appreciation series.

  1. The Appreciation Challenge by Sandra Sims
  2. 5 Ways to Show You Appreciate Your Donors by Sandra Sims
  3. Showing Appreciation to Board Members by Sandra Sims
  4. Volunteer Appreciation, Part I by Jim Berigan
  5. Volunteer Appreciation, Part II by Jim Berigan
  6. Interview with Mike Robbins: The Power of Appreciation for Non Profits by Sandra Sims

Posted on 28 May 2008

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