Reprinted from Contributions Magazine
Working with volunteers is a lot like dating (in the traditional sense). I say traditional because I hear from my friends that dating in the 21st century is much different with online, texting, tweeting, and such. It's been 18 years since I was on the mission to get the guy, but I remember it like it was yesterday. The parallels between recruiting and retaining volunteer leaders and dating are strangely similar.
The Prospect. When you're single, there are two ways to meet Mr. or Ms. Right: a chance encounter where you are both in the right place at the right time (he or she walks through the door and you just know). Or, more likely, it takes some effort; you put yourself out there to increase your chances of meeting your soul mate. The same is true with finding volunteer leaders. Most of the time, great volunteers don't just fall into your lap. You have to put yourself out there and work to find one that's a perfect fit. Put yourself in places that will help you meet volunteer leaders: chamber mixers, networking opportunities, volunteer in your own community. The leaders will shine, and you can make your move.
The Courtship. Once you've identified the prospect, you try to learn as much as you can to see if it's a good fit. You spend time talking and learning about what they enjoy as well as their pet peeves. You observe their strengths and weaknesses. This get-to-know you time is essential for building a lasting relationship. Do you know how the other person responds to stress or pressure? Are they dependable or flaky? You invest time in the courtship and if it's a good fit, you proceed with the relationship. Nonprofits need to do the same with their volunteers. Get to know them. Learn why they want to volunteer for your organization. Find out what they are interested in doing for the organization. By understanding their motivation, commitment level, and availability, you can give them a meaningful volunteer experience.
The Marriage. After investing time and energy into the relationship and determining it's a good match, you're ready to make the leap. Marriage is a big deal. It's a commitment to stick together through good and bad, and strive to better one other. It holds up through the ups and downs as you come back to the common bond that brought you together in the first place. And yes—it's true with volunteer leaders, too. If you get volunteer leaders who are passionate about your mission and willing to put in the time and energy to oversee a project, event, or program, let them lead. Make them an equal partner and help them shine. Communicate regularly. Just like a marriage, you'll have discussions, disagreements, and celebrations. But the bond of the organization's mission and their ability to make a difference will propel your project, program, or event forward faster than doing it on your own.
Now What? It takes work to keep the spark going in a relationship. After a while, it's easy to take it for granted, or just become complacent. But relationships that continue to thrive require nurturing. How can you expect to stay connected in a marriage if you never go on a date or take a vacation together (without the kids!)? You've got to get creative to keep things fresh, and it takes effort. And guess what? Volunteer leaders require similar effort. It's easy to get really great volunteers in a leadership role and then focus your attention elsewhere. Sometimes, you might even forget to thank them, or encourage them. So like any solid relationship, you've got to put some energy into keeping the experience fresh. Ensure they don't get burned out by challenging them with new and different roles. And always make time to acknowledge their efforts. After all, Thank You to a volunteer is like I Love You to your significant other. Just a few simple words that speak volumes.
Becky Lunders, teamWorks
© 2010, Becky Lunders. Reprinted from Contributions Magazine, vol. 24, no. 7. Reprinted with permission.
Becky Lunders of teamWorks specializes in helping nonprofits achieve more by utilizing volunteer leaders. As a leadership development consultant, speaker and facilitator, Becky helps organizations build capacity through volunteer management. Her philosophy (recruit, retain, and recognize), paired with her passion and motivational style help organizations mobilize their volunteer communities.