Episode #009: Helping Nonprofit Employees See the Value of Volunteers 

Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and advice on how to build, grow, and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity, cause, or movement, stay tuned. I made this podcast just for you.   

Well, hello my friends, and welcome to another episode of the Volunteer Nation Podcast. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson, and I am thrilled to be here to talk about a common challenge for leaders of volunteers.   

We hear this across our Membership Community, in our VolunteerPro Insiders Group on Facebook. We hear it in social media. We hear about it when we do Q&As.   

Across the board, this problem comes up all the time. And the problem is, how do you help employees see the value of volunteers? Not only coworkers, but also leadership in your organization. And so, today I want to share some key tips and steps for building that buy-in.  

Now buy-in doesn’t happen overnight. This isn’t going to be a magic wand or magic dust that you sprinkle on and boom, tomorrow things are different. But it will help you start to get traction. And that’s what I want to share today.  

In our annual Volunteer Management Progress Report this last year, every year for the past seven years we’ve asked our respondents, volunteer managers from around the world, to share some of their biggest challenges.   

And while recruitment is generally the top challenge – this past year 28% of our respondents felt recruitment, volunteer recruitment, was their biggest challenge – change management came out second.   

Now, part of it was change due to COVID and policies, et cetera. But also, it’s change management in terms of the uptake of new policies, the involvement of volunteers, and the buy-in from coworkers and leadership.   

Also in fifth place, was respect and buy-in. And that issue comes up as well. Lack of executive support and understanding. Buy-in from paid staff, and resistance to taking on volunteers in departments across your organization.   

So, what’s the key challenge? What do all of these challenges have in common? The biggest thing I see is the issue of influence, the ability to influence people and thus outcomes. So, in this episode, I’m going to share five steps for building influence so that leaders of volunteers are better equipped to help coworkers and executives see the value of volunteers.   

Also, if you’re wondering about the role that mindset plays in the ability to build influence, I encourage you to check out one of my blog posts. It’s called “Five No-Good Mindsets that Block Nonprofit Talent Management and How to Beat Them.” I’m going to link to it in the show notes, and you’ll find this article on TobiJohnson.com.   

So, check that out. It’s much more in detail than what I’m covering in this episode. So, if you really want to roll up your sleeves and dig in further, I really encourage you to check out that article.   

So, let’s start our step-by-step process of building buy-in and helping your coworkers see the value of volunteers.   

First of all, when you’re thinking about getting respect and buy-in for volunteerism, you want to ask these questions. What does respect look like for you? Is it getting a fair share of funding or resources? Is it inclusion at specific meetings?   

Is it the way people talk about volunteers? Is it what coworkers allow volunteers to do? Is it hearing fewer complaints from volunteers about staff? Is it managing less conflict on a day-to-day basis? Is it the approval of a new program or initiative? Is it compliance with policies and procedures by coworkers?   

So, you can see what I mean by this. These are all different behaviors that you might be looking for change. Not all of them usually. So make sure for your situation, you pinpoint what “buy-in” actually looks like. So you can make specific asks, and you know when you get there. 

So that’s step one, clarify your goals. When it comes to others seeing the value of volunteers, what does that look like in your world?   

The second step you want to do is get leadership on board. The person directly responsible for the culture of an organization is your chief executive. That is their job. The culture of the organization is their ultimate responsibility.   

While we would like to think that volunteer managers have the power to individually change the organization’s orientation towards volunteers, that is rarely the case. I know we try to make that change happen from our space, but it isn’t really our job.   

It’s our job within the volunteer corps, but the culture of the organization and its perspective vis-a-vis volunteer talent, that belongs to the executive director. So, there’s some things you can do to foster this.   

First of all, have a candid conversation about the current situation as you see it, and how the lack of buy-in around volunteers is limiting your organization’s growth, specifically towards the key objectives that your organization has laid out in its strategic plan or that it is expressing to the world.  

Second, paint a different picture of what’s possible. Sometimes people can’t see. If you’re the leader of volunteers, you know better what the possibilities of volunteerism are, you know better what might happen or what could happen.   

So sometimes you need to paint the picture in order to help others understand that vision of what’s absolutely possible, that you already know but others haven’t experienced.   

Third thing, bring volunteers in to meet the executive on a regular basis. You know, set up meetings, quarterly meetings, just a couple of volunteers, come in, sit down for 15 minutes and just share what they’re doing.   

You can prep your executive with some information about the volunteers. You can even give them a few questions to ask if they’d like that. But just have them get to know some of your volunteers on a real basis. And that starts to make the abstract real.  

Fourth thing you can do is offer to consult on tasks about what should be added to employee job descriptions around volunteers. When you’re a volunteer-driven organization, it is everyone’s responsibility to support and champion volunteer engagement in some way, whether it’s your reception desk, whether it’s a supervisor of volunteers, or you are the volunteer director or the executive director.   

So, everyone has a role to play in terms of engaging your community. And so you want to make sure that it’s very explicit in everyone’s job descriptions. And if you have specific things you would like to request, or you’d like to advise, be included, this is something you can do on a consultative basis with your HR department or with your executive.   

Finally, offer to train staff on supervision and support of volunteers. Many of our VolunteerPro members work inside our community, and we provide training on how to do this. How do you train your coworkers on how to supervise volunteers, how to lead volunteers, how to inspire volunteers, how to appreciate volunteers.   

And so, we may assume that everybody knows how to do this, but they don’t necessarily. They may not have been trained. And so be that person who can be the help in doing that.   

All right. So, we’ve talked about our first step, clarify your goals. Our second step, get leadership on board. Let’s take a break for a minute and then after, I’m going to talk about three more ways to help others see the value of volunteers.   

If you enjoy this week’s episode of Volunteer Nation, we invite you to check out the VolunteerPro Premium Membership. This community is the most comprehensive resource for attracting, engaging and supporting dedicated, high-impact volunteer talent for your good cause.    

VolunteerPro Premium Membership helps you build or renovate an effective, what’s-working-now volunteer program with less stress and more joy, so you can ditch the overwhelm and confidently carry your vision forward. It is the only implementation program of its kind and helps your organization build maturity across five phases of our proprietary system, the Volunteer Strategy Success PathTM  

If you’re interested in learning more, visit Volpro.net/join.   

Okay, we’re back with a discussion about volunteers and how to bring our coworkers along in terms of understanding their unique value. We’re going to talk about step three now. We talked before the break about the first step: clarifying your goals, and our second step: getting leadership on board.   

Now let’s talk about our third step: building trust and buy-in through active listening. It seems like such a simple thing, but people really do not understand the power of just active listening.   

You know, you can boost the awareness and promise of volunteerism simply by building better relationships with your coworkers. That means meeting in person to discuss your proposal for change if there’s a change that needs to come about when it comes to volunteers.   

You know, people will not likely respond positively to your appeal unless they feel that they know, like, and trust you. So, your time in these meetings is an investment. It is an investment, so it isn’t time wasted when you’re sitting down with folks and talking about the promise of volunteers, how volunteers might help their department, what you’d like them to do to help you.  

So, you can start by meeting over a cup of coffee. This doesn’t need to be a super formal meeting, but you can build bridges by asking the right questions. The right questions can foster a kind of collective entrepreneurial approach that inspires collaborative solutions. So, consider asking specific questions.   

Prep your questions to get the conversation started. And I’ve got a few here for you that you might want to think about asking. Big one: how can our organization meet our mission more effectively by engaging community volunteers? Sometimes it’s just an open-ended conversation. “Hey, I’d just like to talk to you about your thoughts around volunteer engagement at our organization.”  

You can ask, what are our most critical gaps? What are new and innovative ways to partner with volunteers to improve our collective intellectual and social capital. That will give people an eyebrow raise. They’ll be like, “What? Collective and intellectual and social capital, what does that mean?” Then you can have a conversation about it.   

What’s the best we can do here? Sometimes it’s just about considering what improvements you can make and what vision your colleague has for what the best looks like. And then, what might we have to adjust to be even better? Sometimes I like to ask that additional question to, you know, give people a nudge to think about even more improvement. Third step, build trust and buy-in through active listening. That’s your third step.  

Fourth step: champion those who are getting traction through volunteer involvement in your organization. You want to take every opportunity to highlight successful volunteer and employee teams. When folks are working well together, you want to give them shout-outs on social media or on your intranet.  

You want to brief executives and the board on the progress of the volunteer effort and also give staff kudos for their leadership. If you don’t have any success stories yet, no big deal. You can share success stories from other organizations and how their volunteer programs are being run.  

And then act as an internal consultant and architect of the volunteer experience. I like that term “architect of the volunteer experience.” So, you’re championing volunteering by helping people design relational experiences, because volunteering is really about people. Yes, there is a paperwork side of it, but the people part of it comes first.   

And then our fifth step: know your numbers. Know your numbers. Study what’s working and what needs improvement. Build out your key performance indicators and track them, both your aggregate numbers. So, the number of active volunteers, it shouldn’t be a mystery.   

How many active volunteers are there? I know when I ask some of our Volunteer Recruitment Accelerator Coaching clients, I’ll ask, “How many active volunteers do you have right now?” And folks will say, “Hmm, I’m not sure. I’m not sure how many I have.” And so, you want to know what those numbers are.  

You also want to know about your micro conversions. So, what are the process metrics for your volunteer journey? How many people visit your webpage, for example, every month? How many of those people submit an application? How many of those people show up at an orientation? How many of those people convert to active volunteerism?  

If you’re able to start to speak to these metrics, you are building influence and authority within your organization and you can also speak to what might improve some of these metrics. And so, as you make management interventions and those numbers change, you can point to those successes and you can start to give shout-outs to folks.  

Be ready to speak to your numbers and why they go up or down, and how that links back to support and buy-in. So you have to make the connection between what is lack of support doing to your actual outcomes. And so you have to sort of, you know, know the numbers and paint by number a little bit so that your coworkers understand that their actions are actually impacting things.   

So there you have it. Five ways to build influence and help co-workers see the value of volunteers. So to recap, they are:  

Step one: clarify your goals. You want to know what behavior change you’re looking for. What does success look like?   

Number two: get leadership on board. Start to talk to your leader and help consult with your leader about volunteer needs and their role in supporting and championing volunteers at your organization.   

Step three: build trust and buy-in through active listening. So having sit-downs with people and having open ended conversations, just short conversations over coffee is a great way to start.   

Step four: champion those who are getting traction through volunteer involvement. Anytime somebody is doing something amazing with volunteers, or even just regular with volunteers, you want to call them out and thank them.   

And then step five: know your numbers. Be able to speak to those KPIs. When you’re able to do that, you will start to build influence and authority in your organization as the expert in volunteerism.   

One final piece of advice I want to give you: do not sweep things under the carpet. It’s easy to let this kind of frustration grow and grow, and to also accept it as absolutely necessary and part of engaging volunteers. That is simply not the case.   

There are many organizations where the team of paid staff understand their roles and support volunteers in a very robust way. This happens in many organizations. If it’s not happening in yours, it doesn’t mean that it’s a foregone conclusion that it won’t change.   

It can change, but if there’s a need, if you’re feeling real conflict or issue around supporting volunteers or where coworkers are not accountable to what they’re responsible for when it comes to volunteers, you need to step up and have a brave conversation, a candid conversation about what’s not working.   

If you sweep it under the carpet, it will never change. You have to be brave and step up. If you don’t, you’re perpetuating the problem through your inaction. And so sometimes it helps to talk to other leaders of volunteers. It helps to maybe listen to this podcast again and build up your courage, but it’s time to have those candid conversations if you are not moving forward.  

That’s it for this week. Thanks for visiting. I’m really appreciating everyone who’s tuned in and subscribed to the podcast.  

This is a serious topic in today’s episode. I know getting buy-in isn’t easy and it doesn’t happen overnight, but I’m hoping these few tips might help you get started in the right direction.  

Thanks for joining us for this episode of Volunteer Nation. And if you liked it, would you do me a favor and share with a colleague? And also, don’t forget to subscribe because in the future I’m going to start recording bonus episodes, and they will only be available to our subscribers through those podcast platforms.   

I hope to see you next time. Thanks for joining me, and I’ll see you next week on another episode of Volunteer Nation.  

Volunteer Nation is produced by Thick Skin Media. Be sure to rate, review, and follow the show on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at Tobijohnson.com. We hope to see you next week for another episode of Volunteer Nation.