Importance of gathering feedback from volunteers

Volunteer feedback

At a recent speaking engagement, I was asked by an audience member how they should get feedback from volunteers: surveys or exit interviews. The answer, of course, is both.

Feedback plays a crucial role in developing and growing your volunteer program. For most organizations, volunteers are the key drivers of the mission. Knowing what they think and feel about different aspects of the program is vital in helping you create a more inclusive and rewarding volunteer experience.

The most common way to get feedback is through surveys

Surveys are versatile but structured, so you can target specific areas of the program yet still allow the volunteer to provide information about things that you might not have thought to ask about. They are the most common way organizations gather feedback. Many volunteer management software programs have survey tools built right into them. When developing your survey there are a few things to keep in mind:

• Be concise. No one has time to waste, so ensure the survey is succinct – especially if you send them out regularly. Focus on essential questions, and keep it simple and quick.

• Include open-ended questions. In addition to quick yes/no or multiple choice questions, ask questions that allow the volunteer to express their thoughts in their own way. This allows for insights that you might otherwise have missed.

• Always ask for “Any other comments or suggestions?” Again, this is where you will learn things that you never thought to ask about. By allowing people to tell you about their experience, you can get closer to a true 360-degree view of the program.

• Provide a couple of different ways for the volunteers to complete the survey. While on-line surveys are easiest and most popular, some volunteers may prefer a paper copy that they can fill out. The more survey options you can provide, the greater the number of volunteers who will fill it out.

Focus groups are a great way to get targeted feedback from volunteers

While not as common as other methods, focus groups can allow you to do a “deep dive” into a particular issue or area of the program. With the expenditure of a little time and a pot of coffee, you can gather very specific and vital information. Here are some suggestions to make them successful:

• Keep the numbers small. Ideal is about five to seven. More than that and the meetings become unwieldy. Smaller, and you won’t gain the range of perspectives that make a focus group so valuable.

• Draw your participants from as diverse a group as you can. The more experiences and world views that you can bring in, the more useful and insightful the results will be.

• Keep the session short and focused. This isn’t the time to do a full program review. Too long and people won’t want to participate; too short and you won’t get the information you need. Half an hour is about good. If you feel that you can’t get all the information you need in that time, your topic is probably too broad.

• Make it conversational, but ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak. If someone isn’t contributing, try to draw them out. They may have ideas that they want to share, but are uncomfortable speaking up. If someone is dominating the discussion, gently cut them off so others can talk.

• Ensure that everyone feels safe giving their opinions. You don’t want a group of people who feel that they need to support your ideas or the ideas of the most vocal member. Everyone needs to contribute, and they won’t unless they feel their ideas will be listened to and valued.

Ongoing feedback mechanisms allow for continual improvement

Allowing volunteers to offer feedback throughout their engagement can give you the chance to continuously improve your program a bit at a time. Here are a couple options:

• Suggestion boxes (physical or virtual), where people can anonymously suggest ideas for improving the program, express their concerns, or provide comments.

• Informal discussions with volunteers can lead to surprising insights. Make an effort to have short chats with volunteers before, during or after their shifts to see what’s going well and what can be improved.

• Online forums or discussion boards allow volunteers to share ideas with each other and you. This kind of collaboration can lead to innovative strategies, as people build upon each other’s ideas.

Conducting exit interviews is your last opportunity to get feedback from volunteers

Even if a volunteer is leaving for reasons that have nothing to do with the organization itself, conducting an exit interview can give you valuable information. If the volunteer is leaving because of something that you have influence over, the insights can prevent the loss of other volunteers.

• As with focus groups, create a safe and confidential environment. Volunteers need to feel that they can express what they really feel without fear or embarrassment. Ensure they know that the only reason for the interview is to improve the program.

• Inquire about the factors that influenced their decision, about their overall experience, and suggestions for improvement. If you have areas of concern, formulate specific questions around those.

• Don’t use this time to try to change the volunteer’s mind. Accept that they are moving on. All you can do is learn from the experience and be grateful for what they contributed.

I have one final piece of advice—follow up and implement changes based on the feedback. One of the key parts of showing appreciation is demonstrating you value their ideas as well as their actions, so tell them what improvements you’ve made as a result of what they’ve shared.

These are just a couple ways to gather feedback. The more ways you use, the more information you will gather, and the better your program will become. Good luck.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Create a culture of problem-solving in your organization

Encourage problem-solving

Do you have a culture of problem-solving in your organization, or are you the person everyone in your volunteer program comes to for solutions?

When anything goes wrong, do they all come running to you? It doesn’t have to be that way.

Many years ago, I had a boss who put a sign up on her door: “Don’t come to me with problems. Come to me with solutions. You’re paid to think, not whine.”

Now, I’m not suggesting you put up a sign like that for your volunteers – after all, they aren’t even paid— but it will help you, your organization’s mission and the volunteers themselves if you establish a culture of problem-solving in your program.

As a leader, you might have bought into the common myth that it’s the leader’s job to answer all questions and solve all problems. Unfortunately, that myth adds to your workload, limits creative solutions and lowers the value of volunteers.

If you want to maximize the impact of your mission, it’s essential to cultivate a culture of problem-solving throughout the program. Encouraging volunteers to come with solutions to problems can lead to more innovation, increased efficiency, and greater impact overall.

Here are some practical ways to establish that culture.

Foster a collaborative environment

Encourage volunteers to brainstorm ideas for making the program better. When a volunteer comes to you with a problem, work with them to come up with thoughts on how it might be solved. Rather than just jumping in with the solution that occurs to you, ask others for their ideas.

As the volunteers get used to you asking their input, they’ll start thinking of solutions before they even come to you. Not all their ideas will work, of course. However, if everyone is comfortable sharing, an unworkable idea from one volunteer can be built on by another until it becomes workable.

Help volunteers know what to think about by regularly assessing your volunteer program and identifying areas that could be improved. Seek feedback from your volunteers on those areas. Have them bring their lived experience and different world views to the problem.

Add a brainstorming session to your team meetings, where volunteers discuss the challenges that they encounter. Encourage open dialog, active listening and constructive feedback. You might be surprised at what you learn, and the innovative ideas they come up with.

Encourage ownership and autonomy

To build a culture of problem solving, it is essential to encourage volunteers to take ownership of their roles. Grant them the autonomy to make decisions relating to specific tasks. This not only makes them more efficient, but it motivates them to continually improve.

Autonomy is the first of three factors that Dan Pink lists as key to motivation in his TED talk, “The Puzzle of Motivation”. When volunteers feel a sense of ownership, they are more likely to be invested in finding not only a solution, but the best one.

Ensure volunteers understand how what they do impacts the furtherance of the organization’s mission. Provide them with clear goals, allowing them to understand the bigger picture and the impact that their work has. This helps them devise solutions that will not only solve the immediate problem, but also add to the overall mission. This, with autonomy to make decisions, will encourage a mindset of creative problem solving.

Recognize and celebrate volunteers’ successes

Acknowledge and celebrate every time a volunteer’s solution makes a positive impact. Doing so will not only reinforce the importance of problem solving, but it will inspire others to continuously look for ways to improve the program. Let them know ideas are welcome, even if there isn’t an actual problem. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is terrible advice.

Publicly share the success stories of both individuals and collaborations. Mention innovative solutions during team meetings, or acknowledge the impact of a new idea during your AGM. You could even consider implementing an awards program of some sort to incentive volunteers to look for ways to make things more efficient and effective.

Evaluate and improve your culture of problem solving

As with all aspects of your volunteer program, regular evaluation is key to continuous improvement in your culture. Know what you want the culture to look like, and set measurable goals to take you from where you are to your ideal state.

“Measurable” is key here. If you don’t have milestones that you can check against, you won’t know whether you’re moving forward or not. Examples might be, “I want to reduce the number of people coming to me with problems by X” or “I want to spend X amount less time putting out fires”.

Highlight problem-solving in your training, and provide resources on critical thinking for those who are interested. As new ideas are implemented, assess them as well. Can they also be improved in some way? By consistently iterating and evolving, you will create a culture that will encourage problem-solving and improvement in all areas of your program and in all volunteers.

Make building a culture of problem-solving within your volunteer program a priority

It maximizes impact, motivates volunteers and frees up your time. When volunteers embrace a problem-solving mindset, they become catalysts for positive change. They drive innovation and push your mission forward faster than you might deem possible.

So, what are you waiting for? Unlock the full potential of your organization’s volunteers and witness the power of a program driven by a collective passion for problem-solving.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Making a case for selfish volunteers

Benefit of selfish volunteers

When you recruit for your organization, do you avoid selfish volunteers? Should you?

Can self-interest drive positive change? I’d like to challenge you to start looking at how people with “personal agendas” can actually help make an impact in our communities.

Confession time. I have to admit there have been a few times when I volunteered for purely selfish reasons. The first time, I volunteered to serve on a board of directors it was because I thought the experience would help me gain an elected position (I still didn’t win). Then there was the time I volunteered so I could get close to a guy I liked. That didn’t work out, either.

What’s interesting is I continued volunteering for those organizations long after the reasons I originally started were no longer valid, which just means we need to shift our perspective.

Volunteering tends to be associated with acts of pure altruism. While selflessness is undoubtedly admirable, it's essential to recognize that self-interest can coexist alongside acts of service. When people engage in volunteer activities driven by self-interest, they often bring a dedication, focus and drive that they might not otherwise have offered, resulting in a more committed and impactful contribution.

Ann is a good example. She was a lawyer who wanted to become a partner in her firm. It was a big practice and there wasn’t much to help her stand out from the crowd. She started doing pro bono work for a charity in her city that the founding partner of the firm supported. She gained experience in aspects of her field of law that had rarely crossed her desk in her paid work, and she came to be seen as an expert in those areas. Ann ended up catching the eye of the founder and she was eventually made a partner. She still volunteers at that charity because, she says “It’s not often I can advance my career and feel good about it.”

That commitment is a key benefit of having selfish volunteers.

Volunteers who find their needs and desires met while volunteering are more likely to sustain their involvement over the long term. So long as they are making progress toward their goals, they will be motivated to continue pushing toward the organization’s goals. Even when they’re faced with setbacks or challenges, they will have concrete reasons to persevere.

Mahmoud started working at a local food bank shortly after he immigrated to Canada. He was a chef in his country of origin, but hadn’t been able to find work since he’d arrived. The concept of volunteering was fairly new to him. He worried about his poor language skills, and he was hesitant to “waste his time working for nothing”. But once his sponsor listed the benefits he could gain (local experience, networking, language practice, etc), he tried it.

Over the next few months he gained a thorough understanding of Canadian food safety practices, a greater fluency in English and lots and lots of new friends. At the end of three months, one of those friends recommended him to a local high-end restaurant, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, more than 10 years later, he not only still works at the food bank himself, he encourages all new immigrants he meets to volunteer there, too.

And that’s not the only ripple effect.

There are a number of stereotypes about volunteers and volunteering that prevent some people from stepping forward. There are a lot of people who feel that they “should” volunteer, that it’s all about giving back and sacrificing their time for others. And people don’t really want to do what they’re “supposed to do”.

So, what if we could change their perceptions, and have them see the benefit to themselves in volunteering? If people could see others volunteering for selfish reasons, and being appreciated and even celebrated for doing so, wouldn’t that be a better way to get them to try it for themselves? Selfish volunteers are walking billboards for the positive personal results to be gained. I think we actually do our organizations a disservice when we perpetuate the view of volunteering as a purely altruistic activity.

Volunteer engagement that’s driven purely by self-interest shouldn’t be undervalued. Ultimately, when someone’s personal interest aligns with the needs of society, the result benefits everyone. And there’s always the chance that, like me, the people who volunteer for selfish reasons will stick around even after those reasons are past.

So let’s embrace our selfish volunteers. They can be a powerful force for good.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


The art of getting club members to volunteer

Finding volunteers within

Does your group have challenges getting club members to volunteer? How about the parents of members?

I spoke with the leaders of a wholly volunteer-run sports club recently. They have a good number of members who come and play, but are often challenged to find volunteers to do the various tasks that keep the club running. It’s a common problem.

It’s great to join clubs that have no paid staff because it keeps the dues down. The flip side of the coin, though, is rather than spending money, you have to spend your time. Clubs don’t run themselves. Somebody has to do the work. All too often, the bulk of that work lands on the shoulders of a few and they get burnt out.

Many times I’ve heard people complain a club they belonged to closed, even though lots of people were attending, because the organizer quit. And that, unfortunately, is what happens when members or their parents don’t volunteer to share to workload.

So what can you do to get club members to volunteer?

Start by stating expectations—Right from the beginning, state on the membership application form that members are expected to volunteer a certain number of hours every season. Explain the club only exists because people are willing to help out, and that every effort will be made to fit the volunteer time into their schedule. I’ve even heard that some clubs actually assign a dollar amount to each hour, and the member is expected to pay in cash for the time they did not volunteer. That won’t be appropriate for every group, but if the expectation that everyone volunteers is clear from the beginning, you will have fewer problems.

Make it easy for them—As much as possible, offer flexibility. Different people have different schedules, and not everyone is able to volunteer at the time most convenient for you. What tasks can members do that don’t require your attendance? Is there anything that they can do from home? Any tasks that only take a short period of time? Remember, too, that some people don’t have access to a vehicle, or may not have the financial wherewithal to volunteer for things that require out-of-pocket expenses. Offer your members a range of tasks so they can sign up for those that fit their situations.

Make it public—It may feel a bit manipulative, but let’s face it, we do more when people are watching. As Erez Yoeli said in his TED talk, How to motivate people to do good for others, “We know that people care deeply about what others think of them. That we try to be seen as generous and kind, and we try to avoid being seen as selfish, or a mooch.” Therefore, if someone has the opportunity to both volunteer for the club and have that volunteering seen by others, they are more likely to sign up. The reverse is also true; it can be embarrassing – even shameful—to be one of the few who’s name isn’t on the signup sheet. So put the list of available tasks up where everyone can see who has signed up for what – and who hasn’t.

Eliminate excuses—Don’t deny I, we all do it. We find excuses to avoid things we don’t want to do, even when we know we should. How many times have you told yourself that you don’t have time this morning to go to the gym, or that you’re out of floss for your teeth. Excuses. The same is true for volunteering. If you want to get club members to volunteer, you have to eliminate any excuses they may find. Even simple things like making sure there’s a pen attached to the signup sheet – and that it works. I’ve already mentioned building flexibility into the tasks to make it easier. What other excuses might your members come up with, and how can you eliminate them?

Finally, acknowledge and appreciate those members who do volunteer—My appreciation mantra is “every volunteer, every shift”. Make a point of thanking every volunteer every time they help out. Whenever possible, be specific about what you’re thanking them for. A general “Thanks for helping out today” is fine, but if you can say something like “Thanks for organizing the games cabinet, it will make it so much easier to find things now”, it shows that you really noticed their contribution and saw the value in it. Up the ante, too, by acknowledging members’ involvement in a public way. You can comment on it during a meeting, or even post about it on social media (with their permission). Even though the members know that what they’re doing benefits themselves as well as everyone else, it never hurts to have someone acknowledge it.

Getting club members to volunteer can be a challenge. Members do, however, want the club to be successful. You can get them involved by setting clear expectations right from the beginning, making it easy for them to volunteer (and embarrassing not to) and by being diligent in showing your appreciation. Good luck.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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