Four Things Every Leader Should Do to Sustain the Engagement of Volunteers

Managing Volunteers / Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Volunteers arrive to serve, filled with passion and excitement . . . but what got them there at the outset, may not be what brings them back.  That initial passion may evolve over time, or it may even wane.  The good news is, it doesn’t have to.  Leaders can make a difference. 

Leaders of volunteers can take a number of proactive steps to sustain the engagement of those who choose to serve through their organization.  Doing so requires a bit of knowledge, a bit of discipline, and a lot of desire–the desire to continue to feed the passion-fires of volunteers.

A simple set of guiding words will help leaders of volunteers achieve this mission.  Here goes:

Prepare:  Equip the Volunteer with Knowledge and Tools

Many organizations create role descriptions that help volunteers to quickly become familiar with their performance expectations.  These can be posted on a website, so volunteers may access the options in advance, giving them a clearer idea of which of the role opportunities may best align with their talents and gifts. 

A “one sheet” version can also be printed, allowing a volunteer to review the requirements on site.  This “one sheet” role description may include logistical sections such as physical requirements, skills and specific tasks.  This tool could also include descriptors such as, “The kind of person who enjoys doing X will often find Y to be enjoyable.”  These phrases help the volunteer to self-assess, and align themselves to a role that will best meet their interests.             

Bottom line is, preparing a volunteer from the beginning of their time of service hastens the journey from vulnerable, new volunteer to competent, confident, returning volunteer.   

Share:  Guide the Volunteer in Alignment with the Vision

One of the most important objectives for a leader of volunteers to reach is to connect every individual volunteer’s time and talents with the vision and mission of the organization.  This is no small task.  Communication is a big part of how this alignment is accomplished. 

Many volunteer-supported organizations use media, like a video or e-Learning module, that tells the story of the difference it makes.  Media content with an emotional message can help volunteers to visualize how their work makes an impact. 

Once this connection is initially made, the leader must continue to reinforce it.  How?  With two-way communication.  By asking lots of open-ended questions, and allowing others to provide input on choices and decisions, whenever possible, volunteers feel like they are more than “free labor.”  They instead feel they are a meaningful part of shaping the future.       

Be There:  Support the Volunteer in Achieving Service Success

Leaders of volunteers may support volunteers in many significant ways just through their sheer presence.  One simple, and often overlooked task, is offering feedback to volunteers on their performance. 

Most of us desireto know how we are doing in our work.  Words of affirmation from a leader can be powerful.  Words of gentle guidance and redirection can also increase the volunteer’s self-esteem and sense of contribution.  Leaders must be present among their volunteers, ready to “catch them in the act” of doing something great.  When they see it, say it! 

The timely “I noticed that . . .” message woven into the service day can leave a profound impact on the engagement level of a volunteer.  Noticing others’ work matters.  For a volunteer, knowing their work is noticed by the others, matters.     

Care:  Inspire the Volunteer by Touching Their Heart

Leaders of volunteers must consider a simple truth when it comes to recognizing others’ performance:  one size does not fit all.  Each volunteer has a unique set of preferences for being recognized.  These preferred ways of receiving recognition are intimately connected with the intrinsic drivers that compel the volunteer to serve in the first place.

Wow, that sounds complex.  And, yes, it can be.  So, let’s break this down to a simpler approach.  First, do not throw out a current recognition program, if one is in place.  Just acknowledge its limitations.  Any program will only meet some desires for appreciation, some of the time.

Second, to gain insight on what will have meaning to an individual, just ask them.  Most of us are in tune with our likes and preferences in this area . . . or at least what we do not like.  Then, tailor recognition to the preferred style of the recipient.  A heartfelt thank you may be all that person wanted, and needed—no coffee mug or certificate required.    

When leaders of volunteers can prepare, share, be there and care for those in their charge, only then can the passion-fires of volunteers continue to be fed.  With the right mix of knowledge, discipline and desire, leaders can sustain the passions of volunteers for many years of meaningful service.