Top ten tips for volunteer management and retention

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Any volunteer can become a great volunteer, but sometimes you just won't know how wonderful they truly are until after they are involved with your charity or nonprofit. In my experience, attracting volunteers is relatively easy but learning to retain them has been a steeper learning curve for me. I have worked with some fabulous volunteers, but lost some excellent ones as well. Sometimes we learn things the hard way.

Based on my own experience, and from listening to the wisdom of my colleagues, I have compiled my top ten tips for volunteer management and retention, to help you avoid some of the pitfalls of managing your own team of volunteers.

1. Listen carefully to a volunteer’s priorities. It is far better to refer a person to another organization where they will be happy over the long term than to train someone who quits your organization after a month. Volunteers keep doing what they are happy doing, and if they aren't happy with their role at your organization, there is a good chance they won't stick around. Ideally, other organizations will also recognize this and occasionally refer well-suited, potential volunteers to your organization.

2. Make it comfortable. Volunteering with your organization should be an enjoyable experience. If it is easy to make a volunteer feel more comfortable (by providing snacks, a better chair, a new tool, etc.) go ahead and do it!

3. Respond quickly. If you let a volunteer request languish, they are likely to start thinking about finding someplace else to contribute their time to!

4. Have a back-up plan. The ‘I-can-do-it-all’ volunteer is very, very useful to have on your team, but if they are suddenly absent they leave a big hole to fill. Be ready for an unexpected gap by having alternate volunteers who have trained, mentored and/or performed those duties and can fill in when necessary.

5. Check in regularly. Sometimes we become accustomed to volunteers or groups of volunteers who seem happy doing their own thing. Don’t take them for granted or they may feel ignored. Check with the volunteer or team on a regular basis, and ask volunteer team leaders to report regularly. You may find out something you really needed to know.

6. Prepare for emergencies. List an emergency contact person for every volunteer and log each volunteer’s safety-related training. Ensure your volunteers know your emergency procedures, and provide them with first aid and safety equipment. Have a first aid-trained volunteer on every volunteer team, especially when off site or in an isolated situation.

7. Watch for burnout. Don’t over-use your volunteers by giving them too many shifts, hours or positions. Watch for signs that a volunteer has over-committed. Try to be flexible and find a schedule that works for each individual volunteer.

8. Always look for ways to improve. Conduct regular check-ins with your volunteers. As soon as possible, find out why people are unhappy and why they might be thinking about leaving. Conduct exit interviews with volunteers that do leave and ask them for their feedback on how you could have improved their volunteer experience. If there is something you can do about it, take action.

9. Show your appreciation. The importance of a verbal thank you cannot be overstated. Get in the habit of also sending thank you cards, welcome-to-the-team cards, get-well cards, etc. Host volunteer appreciation events if you can.

10. Instill pride. Volunteers like to be a part of an organization that is known for their great work. Get them organization-identified nametags, certificates, shirts or jackets. Share success stories and make sure they can see the tangible results of their efforts. Publish photos of volunteers at work in the newspaper, your web site, or your regular newsletter.. Your volunteers can point to it and say, “I am a part of that vital charity!”

Andy Telfer has worked with charities and nonprofits in Ontario and British Columbia for more than 25 years. He is currently a Director with Volunteer BC and resides in Qualicum Beach.

Photos (from top) via iStockphoto. All photos used with permission.

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