What if the way to motivate your volunteers to come back again and again is to forget for a moment they’re volunteers? What if, instead, the key is to recruit and treat your volunteers like employees?
Many volunteer programs struggle with the same problem - getting a core group to return regularly. A lot of people volunteer at least once, but it doesn’t often turn into long-term commitment. But if you manage your volunteers like employees, thinking about their professional development and giving them important tasks and metrics, then they have an incentive to continue volunteering.
First, you need to recruit the right volunteers for the right positions. Think about how you would hire a new team member. It doesn’t matter how hard working, nice or enthusiastic the person is - if you haven’t clearly outlined the role and their responsibilities, you’ll all struggle.
Recruiting is about much more than filling a seat with a warm body. You need to find the right person, and clearly articulating responsibilities, tasks, and expectations is key to doing that. If you explain exactly what the role is, what qualifications a volunteer needs to have, and how much time they’ll give, you’ll naturally fill volunteer roles with qualified people. They’ll enjoy the work and understand exactly what they commitment to.
Although volunteers aren’t paid, treat their role as a type of job and recruit as such. Even if it’s a small role, like manning a booth at a conference, explain exactly what you need, what the role accomplishes, and the skills required to get the job done well. If you recruit the wrong person to the wrong role, you waste everyone’s time - they won’t meet your organization’s needs, and they won’t feel valuable, decreasing their chances of raising their hand again.
In recruiting volunteers, ask questions and turn people away if it looks like they’re the wrong match. It may sound harsh, but in order to create a good experience for everyone, it might be necessary at times. Instead of telling a prospective volunteer they’re not needed, find something else for them to do if you have multiple opportunities. What are their skills? How much time can they give? Perhaps they can help with another task that better aligns with their skills and availability.
Once you have volunteers in the right roles, you need to think about what will motivate them to do a great job and continue volunteering. Again, think about how you motivate employees to work hard. When you look for a new job, what is one area you look at? A big one is personal growth.
One huge way to repay and motivate volunteers is to create a volunteer program that allows them to push themselves, showcase their skills and grow. Just like a new hire, you want to exhibit how this task benefits the volunteer in the long run, and how it will help them meet their goals and expand their resume. If it’s a single, easy task, highlight it as a networking opportunity. If it’s a project that needs a coordinating role, find a volunteer who wants to expand their leadership and project management skills.
Constantly ask yourself how can you push your volunteers to learn - more about your organization, the industry or a skill - so they can add to their knowledge and resume. This also benefits your organization, since it means you can create opportunities that require more skill and are difficult.
Just as it’s important to show your volunteers how they can grow personally and professionally, it’s important to show them how they’re helping further your cause and organization - something you both care about. Having a common goal - just as an employee does with their employer - will motivate volunteers to continue working for something they believe in.
If a volunteer writes blog posts, send them a note complimenting their thought leadership and how they’re generating valuable community content. If they’re helping translate a paper into another language, tell them how many more people your organization is going to reach because of their work. Constantly connect their work to broad goals and make sure they know how they’re helping your organization move towards those goals.
Just like your organization should have a culture that values its employees, it should also have a culture that values volunteers. It’s hard to expect an employee to come to work everyday if they don’t feel important - and it’s hard to motivate volunteers if they feel like a drag. The final piece needed to bring volunteers back again is to make sure that your organization, as a whole, has a culture that values their contributions. Volunteers are an important part of keeping the entire machine running - make sure everyone knows that.
To do this, blend the online volunteer community with an offline community. Bring volunteers into your office for a happy hour and networking event. Make sure they feel appreciated and know they’re part of your community. After all - you’re all working towards the same goals.