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Volunteer Mobilization Starts with Mindset

Volunteers are the lifeblood of any nonprofit organization, yet many nonprofits find themselves caught in a dialogue of “not enough.” A complicating factor is that leaders sometimes bring a service mentality which actually prevents them from being served.

Have you ever heard, said or believed any of the following statements?

  • It’s easier to do it myself.

  • I don’t have time to delegate.

  • There are no volunteers to help.

  • There are not enough volunteers to go around.

You may say to yourself, “I have asked,” or “I have tried.” Unless you have succeeded in growing the ranks, it’s time to try again. If you choose to try again, you will bring new energy to the cause for which you are so passionate. It is an opportunity to grow “evangelists” for your cause.

You can do it and I’m here to help.

I should note that my passion on this subject is propelled by watching leaders fall in exhaustion. I was one of them when I followed the predominant beliefs of the first organization where I volunteered.

Being told that there were no interested volunteers to help at my children’s elementary school, I took on a position and did it all by myself. I sat through board meetings that had sporadic attendance and I studied the whole process while I did my job. I heard leaders complain about how busy they were, and I must admit I got into the dialogue and started to believe it and feel it myself. By the end of the year, I was exhausted. I swore I would not do it again. I looked at exhausted leaders like myself (a team of about 20 doing an army’s work). I also saw exhausted teachers who needed help but held the same beliefs expressed above. I looked at a potential volunteer pool comprised of hundreds of parents and I swore that there was a better way. I knew it could be done and so I spent the next 10 years testing my theory and trying to change the culture – one volunteer at a time.

It worked. And in the years since, I have committed to initiating similar culture changes at other nonprofit organizations – as a volunteer leader and as an advisor/consultant at the local, national and international levels. It can be done. I’ve seen it happen time and again. And leaders like you have made it happen. Here’s the rest of my story.

I committed to the fact that in order to utilize volunteers, I had to know what I needed. I needed to be specific. I needed to be at least 2 steps ahead on every aspect of the project. And I had to ask. I had to believe it was possible and I had to allow parents to help. I had to thank them when they did. When we left the year, we celebrated together; we talked about ideas for doing it better; and when I needed to move on, there were volunteers trained to take my place and do more than I could have imagined. (Thank you!)

It is important to recognize that there is another dynamic in play here. Volunteers are standing on the sidelines for a variety of reasons. We come to volunteering with a history and many of us have had experiences where we were not well-utilized while volunteering.

In my research over the years, I have found that one of the main reasons volunteers don’t come forward is “nobody asked me.” And, I hate to admit it, butthose of us who are working really hard tend to band together – from the outside, we can look like a tight-knit group rather than an inclusive and growing team. As volunteers – and as leaders – we have to constantly be aware of this potential insider/outsider dynamic so that we invite newcomers. Secretly the people on the sidelines wish they were picking up trash, laughing with you, and were part of the team that is making it all happen.

Here are some simple tips to get started – I call it my PUCR-UP Formula™ for mobilizing volunteers:

  1. Prepare: Assess your needs. Break it into small pieces. What tasks do you need done? How many people would you envision using to complete these tasks? What special skills/abilities are needed? How much time will it take? What other requirements/expectations do you have?

  2. Utilize: Understand the passions/strengths of your volunteers. Match talents and skills with tasks. Incorporate their expertise and ideas. Utilize their time well – start and end on time – if they aren’t being utilized, let them go home. Along those lines, hold purpose-full meetings (whether it is a 1:1 meeting or a team meeting). Build “motivating the troops” into every agenda. (This isn’t necessarily a named item on the agenda, but everyleader should establish this as a personal objective for every meeting.) Ask for their feedback – and listen.

  3. Communicate: Remember you are creating a culture as well as protecting current/future volunteers, so put solid systems in place. Change the culture with your words and actions - make an effort to speak in deliberate and positive terms about your future vision – for the event, for the volunteer system, for the organization. In addition, encourage project folders or notebooks to capture goals, knowledge, resources and lessons learned.

  4. Recognize: Adopt a comprehensive approach to recognition – plan in advance to do it before, during and after an event. Adopt an audience-centered approach to recognition. How would they like to be thanked? What would they like to receive? If you don’t have a large budget, a hand-written thank you note goes a long way to reinforce the efforts of a volunteer. One great resource is – I have often used resources like this to inspire my thinking about simple things that I might create, purchase or put into the budget for the future.

  5. UP: If you follow steps 1-4 it will yield Unexpected Profits for leaders, for volunteers and for the organization.

I maintain my stubborn belief that “if volunteers are not coming forward, then we are not asking in the right way.” We have the responsibility to create the systems that will sustain and grow the mission of our organizations. We also have a responsibility to protect our own energies so that we will have more energy to serve. And the people around you will appreciate your trust and your thanks - they will be engaged, knowing that they are doing something important to help a wonderful cause. Isn’t that what we all want?

As a communication specialist, I am convinced that there are plentiful resources to support your work in the world. It can be done and I hope that these ideas have helped to create some new possibilities in your mind with regard to volunteers.

I promise that if you take 10 minutes to write some things down, it will save you several hours. And I admit that it is a process. I still kick myself when an event/task is right on top of me and I realize that I forgot to ask for help – ahead of time. As leaders we need to commit, whenever we can, to being two steps ahead. Forgive yourself. Move forward. Commit to trying again.

Changing our thinking and changing volunteer cultures happens one action at a time…one day at a time.

Mobilize the troops – leave a legacy - and celebrate!

© Kathy Sturgis, Ph.D. Kathy is founder of Refreshment Zone and is an organizational and personal development specialist with a doctorate in communication. Contact for more information on motivational programs.

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