Sharing volunteers will help attract more volunteers to the sector

Don't hoard volunteers

Does your organization hoard volunteers?

I had a conversation recently with Mushka from the volunteer management software Volunteero. Among many things, we chatted about were volunteer passports, and the importance of putting our focus on retaining volunteers as volunteers, rather than just retaining them for our own organizations.

There’s a scarcity mindset in the sector around volunteers. Many organizations to try to “hoard” volunteers. If they find an amazing volunteer but don’t have a role that would really match their skills and interests, they try to fit them into a role that kinda, sorta matches rather than helping them find a place in another organization where they can really thrive.

We’re so worried about losing volunteers, we are willing to put them into roles where they might be unhappy or unfulfilled. What happens then? The person may decide volunteering isn’t all that much fun, that they’re not getting anything out of it. And then? They quit volunteering altogether.

Talk about a lose-lose situation.We need to stop trying to hoard volunteers if we want to increase the overall numbers.

I’ve written in the past about volunteer passports, so I won’t go over that here again. My focus today is on not driving volunteers out of the sector altogether.

Let’s face it, the more we hoard volunteers the more desperate we look—and desperation never sells.

Instead of trying to hold onto volunteers at any cost, we need to encourage them to seek out opportunities that align with their passions and skills, regardless of whether those opportunities are within our particular organization, in another one, or across multiple ones. That is how we keep them in the volunteering world.

I once spoke with a volunteer named John. He joined a large organization that rescued animals because he thought he would get a chance to learn how to become a dog trainer. Unfortunately, the organization had a rule that only professional staff could do training.

However, they didn’t want to let such a motivated, reliable volunteer go, so they gave him a role as a dog walker, where he could help dogs practice basic obedience. It was okay, but not really what he wanted. When I spoke with him, he was frustrated and decided to pay for some courses and stop volunteering altogether.

One volunteer lost to the sector.

What if that organization had looked around and found a small, local humane centre that would have welcomed his interest, been willing to instruct him and gave him the chance he was looking for? His volunteer experience would have been far more satisfying, and he might still have been volunteering to this day.

“Giving away” volunteers can seem scary. It requires trust, trust that organizations you send a volunteer to will reciprocate. That’s trust you will gain over the long-term. It takes a collaborative approach among organizations. Rather than viewing volunteers as exclusive to our own organizations, we collaborate and share talent when it aligns with the volunteer’s journey.

That not only allows volunteers to thrive but also nurtures a sense of community and shared interest amongst different organizations.

There’s a third benefit. If we’re willing to share volunteers, we will also start sharing best practices. A volunteer who moves easily between organizations will share the things they experienced that worked at one organization with the other organizations they go to. In that way, all the organizations benefit.

Moving from contemplating scarcity to celebrating abundance isn’t the only mindset we need to change. We need to start measuring the value of our programs less by the number of volunteers we have and more by the quality of the experience we offer volunteers, and the impact they make.

Remember, a satisfied volunteer in a fulfilling role is likely to have a greater impact than someone shoehorned into a role they don’t particularly enjoy. We need to make sure that volunteers aren’t just completing tasks but are actively shaping their own experiences, growing as individuals and contributing meaningfully to the causes that they care about.

When that happens, they’re far more likely to talk to their friends and family about the joys of volunteering. We need to break free from the concept of retention for the sake of retention.

Instead, focus on nurturing an ecosystem embracing a wide range of organizations where volunteers can find the perfect fit for their skills and passions. By encouraging volunteers to explore experiences across different organizations, we create a win-win situation—volunteers find fulfillment, and organizations find volunteers who truly match our needs.

When you hoard volunteers, everyone loses. The next time you find an amazing volunteer whose skills and interests don’t align perfectly with your organization, help them find an organization that’s perfect for them.

By keeping volunteers happy, whether in our organization or another one, we strengthen and grow the overall pool, and we’ll have even less reason to hoard volunteers.

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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