8 Lessons for creating an amazing volunteer environment

Keeping volunteers happy

I recently re-watched Patty McCord’s TED talk “8 Lessons on Building a Company People Enjoy Working For,” and the suggestions she made were almost perfectly aligned with creating a fun and welcoming volunteer environment.

So, blatantly stealing from Patty, here are my lessons for creating an amazing volunteer environment.

1. Volunteers are more than envelope stuffers!

They are intelligent, creative and thoughtful individuals who can – and should! – contribute far more to your organizations than menial, unpaid labour. Tap into their knowledge and experiences. Ask them for their suggestions on how to improve your program. Find out if they have run into barriers in their time with you that you might not be aware of. Ask if they know of any potential clients who may be falling through the cracks. Lean on their expertise. You might be surprised at what you find out. And how much more enthusiastic they will become!

2. Focus on impact, not hours.

What metrics really matter in your organization? How many hours a volunteer works, or how many children get fed? Which shifts need to be filled, or which salmon streams need to be cleaned? We tend to get caught up in easy-to-measure numbers. Not saying they aren’t important, but they’re not the reason you exist. The difference you make in the world is why you exist. Start finding and measuring the numbers that highlight your impact. Doing that will improve your other numbers.

3. “The idea of keeping people for the sake of keeping them hurts both of us.”

This quote from McCord’s talk resonated with me because of all the concerns I hear about volunteers not wanting to commit. Why should they? As McCord said, no one wants to do the same thing for 60 years. The world is changing. People are more mobile, more interested in learning new things, more into adventures. Trying to force them into a commitment that doesn’t give them what they’re looking for will annoy and frustrate them. And they’ll leave anyway! If you want to create an amazing volunteer environment, give your volunteers an amazing experience, then let them go. They will be lifelong ambassadors for your program.

4. Ensure volunteers know how the organization works.

As mentioned in the first point, volunteers are intelligent and creative. The better they know how the organization operates, what its goals are, and what success would look like, the better they can help you achieve your mission.

5. Don’t be afraid of giving feedback.

It can be hard and scary to give feedback to a volunteer. But only if you only do it on rare occasions or when something has gone wrong. Providing feedback should be something that you do every day, all day long. “Pia, that’s a fantastic way to fill those baskets! I love it when you innovate!” “George, if you go through and highlight the requirements, you won’t miss anything when you complete the grant application.” “Mahmoud, how is it that even the most aggressive dogs love you? All the volunteers should watch you work with them!” The more you do something, the better you get at it. Give feedback constantly; people want to know where they shine, and how to improve.

6. Live your organization’s values.

I know of an organization that has diversity as one of its core values. That same organization has a board that is 100% white, female and over 50. The staff are all white and female. The volunteers are about 80% white and about 70% female. That’s diversity? Creating a set of values shouldn’t be just a checklist item; done and forgotten. Whatever your organization’s values are, set the example by living them. Anything else is dishonest, and volunteers see that.

7. It’s OK if an idea is stupid.

When you encourage everyone to bring you ideas, it’s bound to happen that some of those ideas just won’t work. And that’s OK. In Edward de Bono’s Thinking Course, he used the example of every person becoming a medical doctor – just a little bit impractical. But that same “stupid” idea triggered a thought in someone else, who said that, instead, everyone should be a police officer. And that’s where the idea of Neighbourhood Watch came from. Don’t throw out unworkable ideas until you’ve explored them to see if they can be altered or combined with others to make it workable.

8. Be excited for change!

It’s going to happen, so embrace it! The world will not stay the same just to make things easier for you. Learn to see opportunities for growth, learning, and increased impact in every change that comes along. Encourage volunteers to feel that same excitement. When we only change because we are forced to, then change becomes frightening and difficult. If, instead, you are constantly looking for ways that you can change, it becomes an adventure. It also makes your organization far more resilient, and it makes your volunteer environment that much more appealing.

So there you go. Karen Knight’s eight lessons for creating an amazing volunteer environment. I’m sure I could come up with 18 lessons, or even 80. But that would make far too long a blog. In any case, I hope they’re useful for you.

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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