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10 Secrets to Volunteer Attraction and Retention

Are you leading a volunteer organization? Are you serving in one? Are you watching from the sidelines saying, "There has to be a better way?"

If you are a tired volunteer leader - or if you are observing one - this article in intended to offer renewed energy and hope to support the attraction and retention of qualified volunteers. There is a pool of volunteers waiting to be engaged. And the 10 secrets revealed in this article have the potential to change the landscape of volunteerism in your organization.

I'd like to tell you where my passion was born. I have taught leadership principles for 20+ years, but there is no setting that is more interesting to me than nonprofit/volunteer leadership. My interest was piqued when I heard a volunteer leader say, "I have to do it all alone. There is no one to help." The person looked bedraggled. And I was bewildered because I saw a pool of several hundred untapped resources standing right behind them waiting to be engaged. This was years ago when I served on the PTA at my children's school, but ever since then, I have made it my mission to challenge this belief and put systems in place that prove this statement wrong.

Here are 10 secrets that every volunteer leader needs to know in order to attract and retain the right people.

1 - It starts with changing your beliefs.

You are not alone. You do not need to do it all yourself (and neither do your committee members). If there is a predominant belief in place that says, "there are not enough volunteers to go around," then get ready to change that. You don't have to do it all yourself and there are enough volunteers to help. Start fresh. If volunteers aren't coming forward, consider a new method of asking.

2 - Leaders need to plan two steps ahead.

The only way to ensure you aren't setting up and cleaning up all by yourself is to plan ahead. As a volunteer leader, I have always been pleased when I was walking "in step" with my team - doing what needed to be done on a weekly basis. However, I have also been acutely aware that being in step was just not enough as the leader in charge. I needed to be thinking two steps ahead - anticipating future needs, looking at the next few months, keeping my other leaders thinking forward on deadlines/needs and thinking about volunteer appreciation. In step is good - but to be an effective leader - we need to strive be two steps ahead.

3 - You have to know what the organization needs.

People like to know what is expected. Know what you need. Ask for what you need. Be specific. Need 1 hour? How many volunteers? What are the jobs you need done? Avoid "calling all forces" if you only need five people.

4 - Organizational needs must be put in writing.

If you have 20 committee/volunteer slots or board positions, create a job description for each. This will create realistic expectations. What are the job responsibilities? Are special skills needed/required? How much time is expected? Are there other expectations? Write it down (3-4 sentences).

5 - Recruiting/interviewing your volunteers is important.

Ensure that volunteer time and talents are matched to the job. Have a conversation with each prospective volunteer before they "sign the dotted line." What's their passion? What was it that attracted them to the position? Do they bring special skills? Are they able to make meetings? Perhaps chairing a committee suits their talents; maybe a sub-committee or "special project" position makes more sense.

6 - Volunteers need motivation, instructions and feedback.

Volunteers offer their time through the goodness of their hearts. They, like us, are often wearing multiple hats. As leaders, we have to be understanding. We also must gently ensure that the jobs are getting done. Personalized follow-up is a plus. A back-up plan is a must!

7 - Volunteers say they don't need to be thanked - but they do.

A simple "thank you" goes a long way. Say it often. Say it in person. Say it in writing. Say it more than once.

8 - Adding creative appreciation fosters a motivated team.

Appreciation is an ongoing event - not a one-time occurrence. Appreciation doesn't have to cost money (although you should have a little money designated in a line item for this purpose). Keep it simple. Keep it personal. Incorporate it into every meeting - it's a leader's job.

9 - Volunteering can actually be fun.

Volunteering is supposed to be fun. And I am serious when I suggest that it needs to be a part of a volunteer leader's weekly responsibilities. Actions speak louder than words. Start with a well-planned agenda, a motivational element and a smile.

10 - Every volunteer leader needs to understand the basic needs of the volunteer.

There are several basic needs that we share as volunteers. We want our time to be well-utilized. We want to be appreciated. We'd like to have fun. We want to make a difference. All of these needs can be met through intentional and positive leadership.

Putting these 10 practices in place will create a strong, sustainable structure that will strengthen the organization for which you all share a passion.

Everything our volunteers do, they do from the generosity of their hearts. It is essential that we provide leadership and positive guidance. A little planning on the part of the leader will ensure that things get off on the right foot.

© 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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