How to Prevent a Volunteer Fail

By Leigh Harper, April 1, 2015

Volunteers can be a planner’s biggest asset or biggest headache. Those who are shepherded well become invaluable partners in your mission, but those who are managed poorly end up creating more work. How do you equip volunteers to serve your organization well and operate as an extension of your staff? Consider adding these tips to your to-do list as you recruit for your next event.

Connect the dots.
The most significant factor in determining success is ensuring volunteers understand why they are doing the job you’ve recruited them to do. We all pursue excellence when we work on tasks we perceive as valuable, so make sure your volunteers understand the importance of their role. By communicating the “why,” you’re connecting their job to the bigger picture and inviting your volunteers to invest their hearts along with their hands. Explain to those installing signage they are removing distractions for participants by providing clear direction. Affirm your registration team by communicating they are setting the tone for the entire event by creating a flawless first impression. The way you talk about the job and overall mission of the event is key.

Set expectations.
Thorough communication before the event will result in well-prepared volunteers, and well-prepared volunteers are confident, helpful volunteers. Logistical details such as attire, parking and food options may seem trivial, but sharing these details in advance will allow them to make arrangements, feel respected and be equipped to thrive. Present this information in a creative way so they won’t miss it—make a video, design a clever e-blast or create an amusing top 10 list of things to know.

Keep them engaged.
Few things irk volunteers more than feeling underutilized. Anticipate your team’s schedule and decide in advance how you will engage them during downtime. Can they inventory leftover T-shirts, relieve other volunteers for a break or support another function of the event? At a previous Passion conference, for example, volunteers on the registration team were in high gear on the first day of the gathering, but had fewer responsibilities on the second day. We engaged them during their free time to support the lunch team. Their manpower was extremely beneficial to the meal process and made the team feel needed. Devise a similar strategy to avoid excess idleness so you are a good steward of the time they are donating.

Express gratitude before, during and after.
Seize every opportunity to express gratitude to your volunteers, from recruitment materials to follow-up communication. Challenge yourself to say “thanks” more often than you say “please.” Send your volunteers notes expressing appreciation shortly after the event, and include anecdotes from any leaders who worked in close proximity to them to personalize correspondence. Cultivating relationships beyond the event is another way to communicate worth and support your ultimate goal of building a seasoned, invested volunteer base. Consider hosting them as special guests at your next gathering, inviting them to a brainstorming meeting or including them on a prayer journey that involves emailing specific prayer requests leading up to your next event.

At a minimum, add the volunteers to your general mailing list so they stay in the loop about what’s happening with your organization. Volunteers can be your biggest ambassadors, so initiate year-round, two-way communication to cement their investment in your cause.

Leigh Harper led volunteers at Passion conferences for the past five years and, prior to that, worked for the world’s largest volunteer organization, HandsOn Network. Today, she is gearing up to coordinate volunteers for Send 2015 conference with the Orchestrate team.

Photo credit: Points of Light

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