Getting the Best from Volunteers
By Michael Jacoby Brown

Michael Jacoby Brown
Michael Jacoby Brown
By following a few time-proven steps, nonprofit leaders can recruit and retain long-term, valuable volunteers – people who will take responsibility for the organization and play an important role in its success.

People who want to volunteer with your organization come with a complex and wide range of hopes, talents, and interests. If you understand this, you are more likely to be successful in tapping their power and getting their best work.

Just like employees, volunteers have their own desires and sense of purpose. Because you and your organization have work to do, your job is to find the overlap, so both the organization’s needs and the needs and interests of the volunteer are met. The place to start is by learning about them.

Some people come to volunteer because they do not get to use their gifts and talents in their day job (if they have one). Many are looking to make a difference, and not just to be another pair of hands. If you have a valuable volunteer you want to keep (and this includes board members), take the time to conduct a one-on-one relational meeting to understand who they are. This should take 30 to 45 minutes and includes open-ended questions like:
  • What do you hope to get out of volunteering here?
  • Who influenced you to be the person you are today? What did they say or do specifically that influenced you?
  • How would you describe your values? Where do you think they came from?
  • Have you ever done anything like this before? What was that like?
  • Are there things you would like to learn here?
  • What would make volunteering here a good experience for you here?
  • What would not make it a good experience?
People will tell you much if you take the time to ask, and will appreciate your asking. This is not a survey, so don’t take notes. You are building a relationship, not acting as an in-take officer. So listen carefully.

Immediately after your meeting, write down everything you remember and keep it on a simple form that includes their contact information and what you learned about them. Include their birthday, family members, and networks.

In addition, the following will also help develop good volunteer relations.

1. Introduce Volunteers to Each Other

Yes, people come to your organization to help you, but they also come for other reasons, as well. They might be looking for Mr. or Ms Right. They might be looking for friends, to try new skills, or to network for a paying job. Take the time to have volunteers meet each other in face-to-face meetings, to learn about each other and celebrate their work.

2. Thank Them

People love to be recognized and thanked. It costs nothing to take a few minutes to thank volunteers at meetings. Write personal, handwritten thank-you notes. Keep boxes of thank-you notes and a calligraphic pen and stamps and mail them through the Postal Service (not email). Give awards, plaques, or meaningful gifts, as a thank you, especially at public events. I have gotten a few and I cherish them. .

3. Keep Records of Volunteers Work

This need not take a long time, but enough to be specific when you thank them. They know what they did, and it really helps if you can be specific about their contribution. For example: “Sam has spent 400 hours over the last year helping us get our files in order and for the first time in a year it took me less than three days to find what I was looking for! Thank you Sam!”

4. View Their Work as a Gift

Getting the best from volunteers means seeing this work not as an extraction of value from volunteer to the organization, but as giving the volunteer an opportunity to do “what God put him/her on the earth to do.” If you give them this opportunity, then you will get the best from them. As St. Francis said, “It is in the giving that we receive.”

Michael Jacoby Brown, who provides training and coaching to nonprofits in motivating purpose-driven teams, is the author of Building Powerful Community Organizations, A Personal Guide to Creating Groups that Can Solve Problems and Change the World. Contact him at Michael Jacoby Brown or call 617-645-0226.
January 2013