Building Long Term Relationships with Volunteers

Courtesy of Creative Commons

In previous discussions on volunteering, I’ve looked at the value of an effective on-boarding process as well as examined what kind of management regime helps to ensure the success of volunteer engagements. Keeping the relationship fresh and productive can be as challenging or even more difficult than attracting and managing volunteers - and ensuring that volunteers are active and engaged. Otherwise, how could you maintain interest in a cause for the long term?

Here are five key principles for creating a framework for effective volunteer engagement (see also a more extensive discussion in the report Bridging the Gap):

  • Be professional – provide all the instructions, signage etc. necessary to get started right away - if people see that you’ve got your act together, they’re more likely to feel that this is a good use of their time and your organization is a good vehicle through which to make a difference.
  • Make the work meaningful - give volunteers work that very obviously connects to your organization’s goals by making sure that the work is connected with your mission.
  • Make the experience social - Statistics Canada found that two-thirds of volunteers say they benefit from improved interpersonal skills and Volunteer Canada found that more than 40% of volunteers cited networking and meeting people as a motivation to volunteer.
  • Make it a long-term relationship - make sure to get contact information and add them to your email list. This will keep them aware of what’s going on with your organization as a whole. If you can, take it a step further and create a special communications vehicle for volunteers to give you a way to share future volunteer opportunities as they arise. That way, the moment an issue becomes hot, you’ve got an army of supporters primed and ready for action.
  • Recognize volunteer contributions - Most importantly, recognize the contribution your volunteers make. While there are lots of personal benefits to volunteering, these folks are giving your organization and cause their time for free. Recognition doesn’t have to mean handing out trophies or throwing banquets. All you have to do is thank your volunteers whenever you get the chance. The more you can do to make them feel needed and useful, the better chance you have to keep your volunteer program robust and move your mission forward.

The Help and Hindrance of Technology

Twenty years ago, in a time before email, social media and instant communication, organizations didn’t need to respond instantly to requests from volunteers. Technology has sped up the rate of communications in all areas of society — including volunteer recruitment.

Having a strong volunteer section on an organization’s website can both help and hinder the process of bringing on new volunteers. So what are some of the things that a website can offer to help attract and retain volunteers? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Articulate clearly the vision, mission, goal and programs of the organization
  • Publicize opportunities to volunteer
  • Describe opportunities on the website in ways that signal the values of the organization, and help people self-select their involvement
  • Tell stories so that volunteers can make a conscious decision about whether or not to go forward with your organization

What can the technology not do? Quite simply, human interaction and creative problem solving can seal the deal. The technology can create a platform to attract and match volunteers but a human interaction with an enthusiastic association member can launch a relationship.
While there is a good deal of experience and free advice available about managing volunteers, it ultimately comes down to being ready for their involvement, making a personal connection, delineating the need and how they can contribute to the mission of the organization, communicating on an ongoing basis to assure that the experience is meaningful and then doing what we do with our clients – building a productive long term relationship.

On Reflection

I must admit that it has been challenging writing these thoughts as I look in the mirror. CMC-Canada has been evolving and continues to define an approach that is more reflective of modern expectations. We have not been focusing on managing our volunteers.

We are now looking carefully at how to make better use of our website to entice volunteers and how we should be treating volunteers. I encourage all of you to help us develop a culture that is more volunteer savvy.

CMC-Canada is acutely aware that our stability as an organization is highly dependent upon long-term relationships with talented professionals energized to create an association that we can all be proud of and deeply attached to.

Volunteers are episodic — they aren’t signing up for life. The more we invest in a volunteer up front, the more likely they will stay.

First Steps

There are three measures that we will take to begin the transformation of our association to becoming more user friendly – raise awareness of the value of volunteers to our stability and to enrichment of what we can offer; provide a volunteer matching function on our website for use by anyone would could use extra hands to get work done; develop a code of volunteer conduct to lay out expectations for a positive longer term relationship with those who volunteer.

My hope is that this small steps lead to many others.