Recently I was talking with a ministry that commits a large amount of hours each quarter to looking for new volunteers. The more questions I asked, the more I learned that there was actually a deeper problem: high volunteer turnover. After a few months of serving, they would watch volunteers cut back on their commitment or even quit altogether. Their constant search to bring people through the front door was only needed because they weren’t watching the back door.
I spent a few years managing a full volunteer worship and tech team at my church, and have learned that cutting back on volunteer turnover is crucial to your organization’s health (and your own). Whether you have 1 volunteer or 100, you can begin to build a culture, system, and nonprofit where people want to volunteer.
1. Ask yourself “What would I want to volunteer for?”
As a leader in your organization, be someone and create something that you would want to volunteer for. Start from the very first connection you have with your volunteers and walk through how you interact with them. How are your volunteers being communicated to? Do they only hear from you when you need something? Are you checking in on them and building relationships? If you were the volunteer, would you stick around? Be brutally honest with yourself here; it’s very easy to fall into Assumed Intrinsic Motivation and forget what it’s like to be the volunteer.
One of the times you will see your volunteers come alive is when they know they are a part of something larger than themselves, not just completing a task. If you’re coordinating a lot of volunteers, it’s your responsibility to set vision and equip people to move toward it. For many years, we’ve given our volunteers tedious tasks that we don’t want to do, and given no indication of the purpose behind what they are doing. People need to understand why the task they are doing benefits the overall picture. What’s the big goal? How does what I’m doing help? When your volunteers have more of an understanding of how they help your ministry’s vision, they will feel more valuable.
2.Make volunteering significant and rewarding
Licking envelopes isn’t a ton of fun, but tedious work needs to get done. How can you work with your volunteers to make their role fun and relational?
When I was leading the worship team, I wanted them to watch a video on the importance of practicing and doing their work with excellence. The video itself wasn’t super exciting, but it was a teaching I knew I needed everyone to hear. If I sent out the 40 minute link in an email, I’m sure a very low percentage of people would have taken the time to view the whole thing, and those who did could be frustrated that they had a long homework project.
Instead of a 40 minute assignment, I decided to turn it into something fun. My wife and I invited the entire worship team over for a movie night. We bought movie candy, made popcorn and homemade snacks, and sent out invitations that made it into a party. As people walked into my house, the excitement and laughs were so loud that it didn’t seem like a “volunteer task”! Making their work fun won’t be possible every time, but can you find a few “fun” ways for them to connect throughout the year?
No matter what task or training you’re trying to rally your volunteers for, making it relational is also important. As your volunteers build relationships with each other, their volunteering experience gets better because now they are doing it with friends. Again, this movie night didn’t just “get the job done” of having them watch the video, but it also built relationships.
3.Communicate at times when there isn’t work to do
My biggest lesson on retaining volunteers: check in on them and know how they are doing.
I’ll be honest, I’m bad at this. I don’t naturally think to reach out and connect with people when there isn’t business to be done. To be more intentional, I actually kept a spreadsheet with all of my volunteers names and a column for every week of the year (I know it’s a little weird, but it’s how my brain works). When I would connect with someone, I would put a checkmark in their column. With a quick glance, I would look at my spreadsheet and see which volunteers hadn’t heard from me in a while. Reaching out to a volunteer was simple, but very meaningful. I would call people and ask them to get coffee. When we showed up, there was no agenda or certain conversation we needed to have- just a check in. And I was always the one who paid for coffee.
In the 5 years I lead the worship team, I only lost 3 volunteers (and 2 of them moved to another city, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t my fault). This is not because I’m a spectacular leader, but it was because I was intentional with valuing what my team was doing, spending time with them, and setting a vision for them to follow. In your organization, how can you begin these changes in the way you interact with volunteers?
It’s simple. Invest in those you lead. That’s your main job. Motivate volunteers who feel known and cared for will take care of the rest.
– Todd Flaming is manages Operations and Strategic Assessment for Keenly Interactive. His background is in Graphic Design and Brand Management, as well as in Worship and Church Leadership.