February 22, 2024

Episode #98: How to Meet Volunteer Needs with 7 Solid Pivots

In this episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast, Tobi Johnson discusses the crucial need for organizations to meet the needs of their volunteers in order to sustain their operations. Tobi addresses the common issue of dwindling volunteer engagement, exacerbated by the pandemic, warning that if change is not embraced, organizations risk losing even more momentum and volunteers. 

Within this episode, Tobi also proposes seven pivotal mindset shifts in volunteer management and how adopting these shifts will enable your organization to better align with the expectations of volunteers and provide an effective, meaningful, supportive environment leading to increased volunteer retention and improved mission fulfillment. 

Volunteer Needs – Show Highlights

  • [01:51] – The Importance of Shifting Focus and Strategy 
  • [02:47] – The Need for a Radical Transformation 
  • [03:51] – Understanding the Expectations of Today’s Consumers 
  • [04:21] – The Decline of Customer Service and Its Impact on Volunteering 
  • [08:21] – The Importance of Acknowledging Volunteer Needs 
  • [09:56] – The Seven Shifts in Volunteer Management Philosophy 
  • [14:52] – The Final Four Pivots to Better Meet Volunteer Needs 
  • [15:03] – The Importance of Investing in Volunteers 

Volunteer Needs – Quotes from the Episode

“When you change the words you use, you change the way people think.” 

“We can no longer survive by a wink and a prayer with zero investment in volunteers, a lack of investment in volunteers simply doesn’t cut it anymore.” 

About the Show

Nonprofit leadership author, trainer, consultant, and volunteer management expert Tobi Johnson shares weekly tips to help charities build, grow, and scale exceptional volunteer teams. Discover how your nonprofit can effectively coordinate volunteers who are reliable, equipped, and ready to help you bring about BIG change for the better.

If you’re ready to ditch the stress and harness the power of people to fuel your good work, you’re in exactly the right place!

Contact Us

Have questions or suggestions for the show? Email us at wecare@volpro.net.

Rate, Review, & Follow Us on Apple Podcasts

If you love the content Tobi shares on the Volunteer Nation podcast, consider rating and reviewing the show! This helps us reach more people – and help more good causes just like yours – successfully engage enthusiastic, dedicated volunteers with less stress and more joy.

Click here, scroll to the bottom, tap to rate with five stars. Then, select “Write a Review” and let us know what you loved most about this episode!

Also, if you haven’t done so already, follow the podcast so you don’t miss a thing. Follow now!

Subscribe to ProNews: Our Weekly Resource Roundup

If you’d like to stay up to date on all new podcasts, blogs, freebies, and deals posted on our Tobi Johnson & Associates and VolunteerPro websites, subscribe to our weekly ProNews newsletter.

Every Wednesday, we’ll send you a digest of our freshest content, plus a bonus! Once you confirm your subscription, you’ll get our [Free eBook] The New Volunteer Manager: The First 90 Days.

Episode #98 Transcript: How to Meet Volunteer Needs with 7 Solid Pivots  

Welcome to another episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. I’m your host, Tobi Johnson. And today I want to talk about how to meet volunteer needs. Now, when I say that phrase, you may be thinking, how does our organization meet its volunteer needs? How many volunteers do we need? In which roles? With which talents? 

But today, I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about the needs of volunteers themselves. And there are some solid pivots that need to happen in today’s world to attract and keep volunteers coming back. Many of you have been struggling to build back to full capacity since COVID. Your volunteer needs are not being met, but I think the critical key to meeting your organization’s volunteers’ needs is to meet the volunteers’ needs themselves.  

So, I want to talk about seven pivots in mindset and in strategy that I think can make all the difference. It’s been a really tough time for many of you. Some organizations have had to shutter programs because they don’t have enough volunteers. And I think that’s a real shame because it is the people who suffer most are the people your organization is set up to serve. And so, we want to make sure that you’re connecting and engaging people in the community that want to help. So, I want to talk about how our organizations really need to shift their focus and strategy and thinking really about volunteers. You know, COVID wasn’t the thing that caused this decline. 

It was definitely an impactor, and it may have accelerated a decline in volunteer engagement. But, you know, before COVID, there was a steady decline going on, except for 2016, when there was a spike in volunteerism, there had been a decade or more slow decline in people getting involved in formal volunteering. 

So, we’ve got to start to really take a good look at what we’re doing, what our organizations are doing, and ask some tough questions. Because I have a feeling that what we thought we needed to do is not what we really need to do. I would argue that in order to re-engage our communities, we need to radically transform our volunteers’ needs. 

Simply put, we need to focus on volunteers’ needs, not just those of our organizations. And we need to better understand what’s driving volunteer participation. People are still volunteering. And so why do people want to help their favorite causes and what turns them off? And that may mean some adjustments in your requirements, in your processes, in your policies, and in the ways that you engage the community in your good work. 

I’ve talked about volunteer needs in terms of human needs, and you can check out Volunteer Nation episode 45, Building a Smarter Volunteer Retention Strategy, where I talk about three core needs that each human being has. So that’s a great place to get started. Today, I also want to talk about aligning our work better with the expectations of today’s consumers. 

And I use that term consumers very purposefully. Because people are consumers, people are assessing and critically what they’re going to get involved with, what they’re going to purchase, what they’re going to put up with, what experiences they want. People are more and more being very choosy and picky about those things. 

Most People would agree in today’s world that customer service overall has gone down. That it’s, it’s declined in the level of service. Think about when you call, for example, an airline and they call you back in 45 minutes, or you call the IRS, and you sit on the phone waiting for over an hour for someone to pick up the phone to answer your questions about your taxes. 

There are so many examples. Or you contact your local state. agency for something and you wait months to get a response. All three of those things, by the way, have happened to me recently. And so, it really has gotten to a point where it’s acceptable to make people wait, to not provide exceptional service, and people are getting by. 

Now, those organizations that have a monopoly on You know, their services like the IRS, there’s nothing you do about it. If you got to pay your taxes, you got to pay your taxes. Those organizations and even the airlines, although there is some competition there, can get away with this. 

Basically, you can think of a million and one in your own life ways that customer service has gone downhill. I feel like in a way, volunteer customer service has gone down as well. I’ve heard many. Many volunteers and read comments from many volunteers around the lack of people getting back to them when they apply for a volunteer role, or not being treated fairly in the place that they are contributing their time and talent. 

So, a lot of that. We’ve got to think about this, think to yourself, when was the last time you had a wow experience where you would rave, absolutely rave, about the service when you were either buying something, get, asking for support, contacting support, or lodging a complaint for not getting service, or not getting what you purchased.  

Now, I’ve been monitoring and running our WeCare at volpro. net, our customer service email, and we’ve had some glitches in some of our technology, and I’m emailing back and forth with people every day. And so, for us, I can’t stand it if we have, if someone doesn’t get a response within 24 hours, within one business day, but that’s not the case for all organizations. 

People are still picky. Even though customer service has gone down and people are especially picky about acting on things that are nice to do, not need to do like everybody when they need to go on a trip, they need to make it realistic, like nobody wants to drive across country to get from New York to L.A. 

I mean, it’s not practical for most people, they must take an airplane. In those cases, people will put up with not great customer service. But think about volunteering. It really is an optional activity for people. And we as nonprofits and volunteer involving organizations. Need to consider that and understand that, that volunteerism, for most people, unless they’re volunteering through school or community service, is an optional activity in their lives. 

And so if there is any friction whatsoever in terms of getting the gist that maybe it’s not going to be, a great experience, they’re not going to be treated well, they’re not, the information is confusing, they feel like they’re talked down to, any of those glitches or speed bumps are going to make people in today’s world stop and take a pause and probably not take action. 

So, I really feel like we are at a watershed moment where we really, if we want to keep, get and keep volunteers, we need to change the way we do business. Yeah, we really do. To tap into the vitality of today’s volunteers, it is the organization that needs to pivot, not the volunteer. Because you know what? 

It’s an optional thing for volunteers. They can serve or not serve. Completely up to them. But you as organizations, for most of you, it’s not optional to have volunteers. So, you are not in the chosen position. Volunteers are. And so, you know, we need to make changes, not just lip service, a few new volunteer job descriptions, a revamped volunteer training, or a new recognition program. 

Those are good, but that is not real, authentic, deep change. If you stick with the status quo. You’re going to risk losing even more momentum and more volunteers. Your volunteer base is likely to keep shrinking. If you change your paradigm, however, you may very well build a stronger, more passionate volunteer team that gets the job done in ways you never thought possible. 

I have spoken with people recently who have more volunteers than they need. So, it is possible in today’s world. So, if it is the case that you need to change and the risk of not changing is not having volunteers, then the risk of change really isn’t that risky, is it? In fact, it’s a, it’s a mandate. We must change. 

So, you’re probably saying, this is great, Tobi, but how do I make the switch? So, to better meet volunteer needs head on, I want you to think about these seven following shifts in volunteer management philosophy. and processes. These directly address a change in supporting volunteer needs. They are directly related to the volunteer experience. 

And so, note as I go through these, the type of terminology, because when you change the words you use, you can help change the thinking of other people. It’s funny how that works. So, if there’s people you must influence or need to influence in your organization to make this evolution happen or to foster or spark an evolution, then think about it. 

Think about the words you use. So, let’s talk about pivot number one to addressing volunteer needs. We need to move, and this has been happening, people have been talking about this, move from volunteer management to volunteer engagement. So instead of a command-and-control type model of supervision and tasks, it’s time to start thinking about how we can motivate community members to work toward a shared goal, which is your cause, your mission. 

What is their primary motivation for getting this work done? What is the change that they want to see in the world? And why does it make sense for them to engage with your organization? So, this is beyond supervision. We often talk about volunteer supervision, but what does it look like when we partner with volunteers on equal footings? 

That’s a different kind of relationship. It’s more about. coaching and resources and inspiration. It’s a different kind of leadership. And so that’s the first pivot I think we need to make. The second pivot is from recruitment to cultivation. You know, think about the cultivation of your volunteers. Think of that as you would develop potential donors because volunteers are donors a lot of the time, but we often still think of volunteers as day laborers. 

Like we’re just going to put a call out, put up the bat signal. People are going to show up. We’re going to drive by to pickup truck, they’re going to jump in the back, they’re going to come and volunteer. Well, that’s not how it works. That’s certainly not how it works when we’re raising funds. 

So, you know, we got to think beyond cattle call for all hands-on deck or a day labor type of paradigm. Volunteer commitment is a process, not a destination. I like to say that we got to think about every step in the volunteer journey. It takes a full relationship to form. If you want to enjoy the full commitment of your volunteer partners, it takes time and conversation. 

So that’s different. Cultivating commitment is very different than recruiting people to do a task. There’s a subtle, or maybe even not so subtle, point of view. And so, it means that we need to take more work, we need to put more work and time and investment into our recruitment and think about every step of the volunteer journey when they learn about our opportunities to visiting our webpage, to applying, to talking with somebody, to attending training. 

What are all those things? What are all those pieces? And can we focus on relationship building during those steps? So that’s pivot number two. Pivot number three is moving from placement, volunteer placement, to negotiation and agreement. Negotiation and agreement. Volunteer needs are very complex, and they really vary from person to person, whether it be their interests, their skill set, their schedule, their constraints, etc. 

Their history, their lived experience, there’s lots of complexity. So, we want to be thinking about how to use each volunteer’s skills and talent versus trying to force a square peg in a round hole. So, this means that, you know, volunteer placement is a lot more about matching and finding that best match. 

And this means organizations must be more flexible. You may have specific roles that are not being filled. You may need to start to think about how you can redesign those roles. Well, we need these roles to be done this way. Well, maybe, maybe not. Got to start thinking outside the box. After the break, I’m going to talk about four more ways, pivots and ways of thinking to really address the needs, the volunteer needs for today’s consumers, and again, I use consumers purposefully. 

People are choosing. or not choosing to volunteer. So, you’ve got to make that getting to yes easier. So, let’s take a pause for a quick break from my list of key pivots organizations need to make to better meet volunteer needs and we’ll be right back. Stick with us. Hey, if you’re enjoying this week’s episode of volunteer nation, we invite you to check out the volunteer pro premium membership. 

This community is the most comprehensive resource for attracting engaging and supporting dedicated high impact volunteer talent for your good cause. Volunteer pro 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. 

And it’s the only implementation program of its kind that helps your organization build maturity across five phases of our proprietary system, the Volunteer Strategy Success Path. If you’re interested in learning more, visit volpro.net/join 

Okay, everybody, we’re back with our chat about the key pivots organizations need to make to better meet volunteer needs and the volunteer needs of the volunteers themselves, not the organization. 

In this conversation anyway, certainly we need to be strategic. Certainly, we need to think about the key roles and tasks and results that we want to achieve through engaging volunteers. But if we’re not meeting the needs of volunteers themselves, who knows? We’re going to be struggling to meet the needs of our organization. 

It is a precursor. It’s a prerequisite to meeting our organization’s needs. So, let’s talk about pivot number four. Moving from supervision. to support. Now, I talked before the break, moving from placement to negotiation and agreement. I talked about moving from recruitment to cultivation. I talked about moving from management to engagement. 

This is like moving from management to engagement, but with a slight twist. So, one of the most important volunteer needs is flexibility in their time commitment. We talked about this before the break. One of the ways to achieve this is to allow for a certain amount of flexibility and independence that you build into your volunteer roles. 

This doesn’t mean you don’t have expectations. It doesn’t mean that you don’t ask for accountability. It doesn’t mean you don’t train people, prepare people and help them be successful. Doesn’t mean you don’t have difficult conversations if people aren’t following through, but it just means that there are any number of ways to get the job done through different timeframes and different personnel. 

If you think about, for example, an individual volunteer role versus a team-based volunteer role. When a team takes on a specific, task or project, there’s more flexibility inherent in that different people can step in, different people can take on different roles, there’s different tasks, sort of like, you know, if you have a team that’s adopting a garden spot in your organization’s brick and mortar building, and that team is going to be weeding and, and pruning. 

And I’m a gardener, so of course I’m using these terms, this metaphor, but it could be for anything. But let’s just say adopt a sport. This team’s going to work with this part of the garden. So, it doesn’t have to be the same person and it doesn’t fall on the shoulders of one person. You can use a team approach, so people have lots of flexibility. 

So, lots of ways to do that. Another way to ensure that there’s flexibility is to make sure that, and move from supervision to support, is to ensure that all your volunteers have adequate training tools and access to resources. The thing is, we can no longer survive by a wink and a prayer with zero investment in volunteers, a lack of investment in volunteers simply doesn’t cut it anymore. 

It simply doesn’t cut it anymore. People say, and they’ll complain, I don’t have enough volunteers. We’re not meeting our mission and our goals. I’ll go, great. What are you investing in, your volunteers or your volunteer coordinator? Oh, we don’t have any budget for that. Well, if you have no budget for that, then you are going to have no volunteers. 

Volunteers need tools, access to computers, access to workspace, access to people, access to support, access to training, access to software. There’s all kinds of things volunteers need. Volunteering is not free. And so, if you want to have a robust volunteer effort at your organization, it will require a budget. 

It will require a budget. and a skilled person to lead that initiative. This isn’t tapping someone on the shoulder and saying, hey, can you fit this into your already busy schedule? That will not cut it in today’s world. It just won’t. And if that’s the way you’re approaching it and you’re not getting results. 

There you go. And I know I’m speaking tough, tough love here, but it’s absolutely the case. If you’re interested in figuring out how to improve and what resources might be needed at each step of the volunteer journey, check out Volunteer Nation Episode 19: Improve the Volunteer Experience with a Journey Map for how to discern volunteer needs at every step of their life cycle, and you can think about the resources that are required at each step. 

It simply won’t cut it in today’s world to short shrift volunteerism if you want big results from your volunteer program. This is talent management of unpaid people, community people, and for those people, volunteering is optional. It’s optional in their lives, for most of them, it’s optional, but for your organization, it’s not. 

So, who gets to have the say? Who has the leverage? The volunteer has the leverage. They get to say yes or no and walk away, vote with their feet, but your organization can’t say no to your mission. And so, you’ve got to pivot. Let’s talk about another pivot. And for the links I’m talking about. 

You can absolutely check those out in the show notes. Okay, pivot number five. Pivot number five is all about moving from review to measurement. So, we think about, and I hear people talk about volunteer performance reviews or evaluations, which, who hates these evaluations? An annual evaluation? I will hear people talk about this and ever since the very beginning of being in the volunteer space, I would hear about annual voluntary evaluations and I think to myself, who wants that? 

What purpose does that serve? Why not give people feedback on the fly? It feels so much like paid employment and that’s not why people volunteer. People don’t volunteer because they want to work for free. They volunteer because they want to change the world. How does an evaluation have anything to do with changing the world? 

That’s just my opinion. So instead of conducting performance reviews or evaluations, which everybody hates, focus on the impact the volunteer and volunteer teams make. What specific value and impact do they bring to your organization in real terms? People want to be sure their time isn’t wasted. And so, moving from evaluating volunteer performance to communicating impact, the impact of their work can have a huge, powerful impact. 

on their motivation. Think about that. Why do people volunteer? Not because they want to work for free. People volunteer because they want to change the world. So, if you’re reporting back, here’s how you’re changing the world. What more powerful motivation is there? So that’s pivot number five, moving from review to measurement. 

Pivot number six of meeting volunteer needs is moving from similarly, but slightly different from recognition to acknowledgment. So, volunteers, if you ask them, they’re not really looking for another plaque, coffee cup, paperweight, etc. What they want to know is that their work has made a difference, as I said before. 

So, let them understand. That you know who they are, and you know the value they’ve brought to the organization and their community. So, when we think about recognition, often it’s about things, stuff. Acknowledgement is about seeing each individual for who they are and what they’re contributing. It takes a little bit more work. 

It takes paying attention. But you know what? Again, for volunteers, volunteering is optional. So, when it feels good. People are going to do more of it. And when you acknowledge human beings for the work they’ve put in, it feels good and they’re going to keep coming back. Finally, the final pivot for today, for really helping volunteer needs be met, is moving from retention to sustainability. 

Retention to sustainability. We often talk about volunteer retention. What are your volunteer retention numbers? How are you doing in that regard? What’s your turnover? What’s your return rate? All that. You know, in the past, we were able to rely more on volunteers to commit to consistent, unending years of service. 

Gang, if you don’t know that that ship has sailed, it has sailed. I remember one of the first jobs I had working with volunteers. I had volunteers who’d been working and contributing to our organization for over 20 years when I came on board. In my current volunteer or different volunteer roles with the same organization as a Master Gardener, for about six years, which feels like a long time, but I’m not doing direct service volunteering. 

I’m not going down every single week, at least not during when it’s not gardening season. And I’m doing online volunteering. We do a Facebook show, a Facebook live show every Saturday during gardening season. So that’s not a heavy lift for me. We give a lot of value to the community that tunes in and listens with gardening tips, but it’s not really about retention. 

I mean, it is for us as organizations, we need to use, we use retention and need to consider it to be a sort of marker, sort of. One of our, you know, when you go to the doctor and they’re checking your blood pressure, your retention rate is one of those key metrics that tells us that there might be something wrong. 

But it doesn’t tell us what’s wrong, doesn’t tell us what’s wrong. To really figure out what’s wrong, we must be able to figure it out. Why are volunteers leaving? Why are they satisfied? What keeps them coming back? You know, volunteer needs have evolved from helping, no questions asked, to demanding quality experience that doesn’t burn them out. 

And as well they should. Life is tough lately. There’s a lot going on. People are juggling a lot, whether it’s the economy, whether it’s aging parents, whether it’s kids in school and worries about their children, whether it’s COVID, you name it, whether it’s climate change, there are some existential threats in our world, whether it’s war, family members deployed, whether There’s just so many pressures on people. 

And so, we don’t do our volunteers a service when we burn them out because we don’t have enough volunteers. We keep going back to the well on the same volunteers. And, you know, frankly, again, volunteerism is optional when people have to start paring back because they’re exhausted, their volunteer role will be the first thing to do. 

So, we really can’t ignore that volunteers need a wellness program. They need to be supported, they need to be feeling like volunteering is buoying them up, not dragging them down. And so, maintaining sustainability of the long term means that we need to rethink how we engage volunteer talent, how we reconfigure their work, how we collaborate within our teams, and how we share leadership at all levels to ensure the most effective use of people power. 

That we have in the here and now, there’s a lot to unpack with that sustainability and to boot, if we’re not getting back to volunteers when they are reaching out to us and expressing interest in our opportunities, or they have a bad experience when they’re stepping up to the plate and committing their time, they may step off and never volunteer again. 

So, there’s sustainability within our organizations, but there’s also the sustainability within our entire communities and within the health of volunteerism within the areas from which we engage volunteers in the neighborhoods, communities, regions that we work within. Because if we’re not treating volunteers well and they walk away, that means other nonprofits involving volunteers are impacted as well. 

We need more people engaged and involved in the volunteer enterprise in every community. And so, we are in it together with all the other volunteer organizations involving them. So, when we think of sustainability, we’ve got to make sure we have an ecosystem that keeps volunteers coming back, right? That everybody is working on this together. 

This is why your local volunteer manager associations, and your local nonprofit associations are great places to get together and say, what do we want our volunteer ecosystem to be here? What is each and every one of our organizations going to commit to? Because volunteers don’t see the differences. 

They don’t see the lines in the sand. They just think about giving. So, both internally. thinking about sustainability within each volunteer, that they’re able to be resilient and energized by their volunteer work, but also sustainability of volunteerism in your community. So, I’ve thrown a lot at you, seven different pivots from pivot number one, from management to engagement, to pivot number two, from recruitment to cultivation, pivot number three. 

From placement to negotiation and agreement. Pivot number four, from supervision to support. Pivot number five, from review to measurement. Pivot number six, from recognition to acknowledgement. And pivot number seven, from retention to sustainability. Now, these may just be in your mind, those, these are just changes in words, changes in semantics. 

But when you change the words you use, you change the way people think. These are anything but. These pivots are important, but they’re not easy to pull off. They’re simple, but they’re not easy to pull off. So, pick one. Just think about one of these that you could change and start talking about how policy and approach and strategy and tactics at your organization need to pivot to accommodate one of these. 

evolutions, because gang, I really don’t believe that if our organizations, if they’re not willing to change, if they’re not willing to invest, you kind of get what you pay for. And again, for volunteers, volunteering is optional. And so, we’ve got to make it as appealing as possible. And getting work done in our community is one of the biggest motivators for volunteers. 

They’re not looking for an easy slam dunk opportunity. They’re looking for meaningful change and we must partner with them to make that happen. So, I want to thank you for joining us for this episode of The Volunteer Nation. I hope it has given you some new ways to think about meeting volunteer needs. 

If you liked it, I hope you’ll share it with a colleague or a friend who might need some additional inspiration about making some shifts and a better approach that gets them traction. So, join us next time, same time, same place, on The Volunteer Nation. I hope you have a fantastic rest of your week. Take care, everybody.