Tips to Better Volunteer Management

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Note: this article was also published on Medium and previously published in the November 2007 issue of KC Stage Magazine (link no longer active).

{Header image by kabaldesch0 via Pixabay, and used courtesy Creative Commons Public Domain license}

Chances are if you’re working in the arts, you’re working with volunteers. Whether it’s board members or ushers, volunteers usually are the ones that make the organization flow from day to day. Volunteer management is a much under-appreciated aspect of almost any organization, but a vital one. Keeping your volunteers happy (and returning) is as important, if not more so, as having an audience. After all, they are walking and talking promotions for your organization. Here are some tips for managing and maintaining your volunteers.

The two most important words to a volunteer’s ear: free stuff. Seriously, the most important thing for a volunteer is to feel appreciated, so thank them often – and mean it. And hey, a little swag now and then – whether it’s a t-shirt, pen, button (all, of course, with your organization’s name and/or logo on it, turning your volunteers into walking and talking billboards), or other freebies – would make them feel extra appreciated.

Photo by Richard T. Sutton
Photo by Richard T. Sutton

Make them feel wanted. This is more than thanking them. Treat them as you would any financial donor, for while they may not be contributing money, they are contributing time – which is sometimes more valuable. Besides: after donating time, they may fall so in love with your organization to donate money as well as time. Feeling wanted covers everything from a simple thank you to making them feel their time is valuable. Be sure to keep connected with them year-round, even if you only need volunteers once a year; but at the same time, don’t be overly familiar to where they get tired of hearing your name, either. Make sure communication is a two-way street, for they may be interested in other volunteering areas or have ideas for your organization.

Give them specific times, and make sure they know that you’d be happy with as little (or as much) time as they can spare. There is only so much time in the day, and people are becoming busier and busier. You’ll get more people willing to help out if they know it’s going to take so much time out of their day or week, or if they know they can ‘negotiate’ the time needed for the project. After all, we’re all busy people, and we all like to have better time management.

Have a good training system in place. Make sure you know what your volunteers are going to be doing before they show up, and if it’s something that involves instruction or training, make sure the training is understandable, available, and maybe even something they can take with them (or get beforehand – maybe even have it available on your website). Make sure they feel comfortable with their task(s), and make sure they have a way to ask questions if they are confused. Let them take ownership of the task(s) they are doing. At the same time, make sure the training involves any ground rules and ‘jargon’ about the organization (you never know how familiar – or unfamiliar – a volunteer is with your organization, especially if using a source such as VolunteerMatch.org). After all, they need to know answers to any basic questions about the organization they may be asked while volunteering, or while talking to their friends and family after volunteering.

volunteer-table-angie

Keep them interested. Nothing’s worse to someone donating their time than to feel like the time was wasted. Make sure you have enough projects for your volunteers, and that there’s plenty to keep them happy and busy. At the same time, don’t feel like they have to be productive every minute of the time they are volunteering. After all, talking with their friends or taking a break can help revitalize a volunteer and make them more willing to promote your organization. At the same time, try to match skills to the tasks. One of your volunteers has clerical skills? Maybe have them help input information into your mailing list. Another has public speaking skills? See if they’d be willing to be an ambassador for your organization and give talks about it to other community groups.

Evaluate and regroup. Not only should you make sure your current and past volunteers are giving you input (about the time they volunteered, about the volunteer sign-up process, or about the organization as a whole), but you should also follow up with people you asked to volunteer and didn’t. Why didn’t they? Was it just a lack of time, or was there some confusion regarding the volunteer opportunity or your organization? If you’re shown as an organization willing to listen (and even change, if need be), your volunteers will be instant recruiting tools for other volunteers.

Volunteer management is a vital part of any organization. A lot of these tips are basic management tips as well. So, if you’re interested in more tips, look for management books as well as resources such as VolunteerMatch.org, BoardSource, and the Nonprofit FAQ on idealist.org.

  • Wendy Moore

    Thanks for the very interesting article. You make some very valid suggestions for volunteer managers to retain volunteers, create volunteer satisfaction and promote your business through freebies. That is definately a win win situation. Well Done.

    Wendy Moore
    Volunteer Coordinator
    Brisbane, Australia