Volunteer Supervision: It’s Time to Ditch Nagging in Favor of Inspiring
Several years ago, my Aunt Deanna expressed her frustration in an email to me about the lack of effective volunteer supervision at an agency where she volunteered.
She is an avid volunteer and was disappointed that many of her fellow volunteers didn’t show up for a weekend volunteer project. She asked for my thoughts on why people do or do not show up and wondered what she could do to change the trend.
My aunt is a dedicated volunteer, one of those “super volunteers” who contributes their time to multiple organizations. Ever since she retired, volunteering has been part of her life’s work.
So, it’s a little disheartening when she gets frustrated about her experiences.
There’s no doubt that when volunteers don’t follow through at your organization, the most dedicated of your supporters are equally as frustrated, first because they see an organization in need and a community that is not supporting it adequately. Second, because they are often left to pick up the slack, making their experience more harried and stressful.
When a group of volunteers decides to not show up, it also impacts the willingness of others to follow through for your cause and can easily become an epidemic, if unchecked.
A few years ago, the New Tork times featured an op-ed on the Golden Age of Bailing. The author posited that technology and a change in societal ethics are the key culprits. Maybe so.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that nonprofits need volunteers to show up and show up when expected.
With increasing demands and shrinking budgets, it’s unlikely that the need for committed volunteers will decrease anytime soon.
So, it’s up to organizations to get better at attracting and inspiring community supporters to follow through on their behalf.
I’ve personally been a part of organizations where volunteers rarely missed a commitment. So, I know it’s possible, even in today’s environment.
So, what can a leader do?
Seven Tips for Effective Volunteer Supervision
Although we’d like to think it makes a difference, nagging really isn’t a prudent volunteer supervision approach. It simply isn’t effective in promoting long-term, consistent follow-through. Sooner or later folks get tired of both pestering and being the pestered.
So, rather than nag, I suggest trying the following:
1) Make Sure Volunteers are Committed in the First Place
In the crush to find enough volunteers, organizations often neglect their established standards or don’t bother to define any at all.
As the saying goes, “you get what you pay for,” and, unfortunately, in this case, it applies. Without clearly communicating your expectations for volunteers and checking closely to see if they are willing to meet them, everyone is bound to fail.
When meeting interested volunteers, it helps to have extra intentional conversations before you welcome them aboard.
The fact is that people-pleasing is alive and well. Sometimes volunteers agree to a commitment simply because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. To screen for this, don’t shortcut the volunteer orientation and onboarding process.
As a former volunteer program director, I can’t tell you how many volunteers I’ve seen sent to training without having completed our agency’s screening process. In the end, the rush just didn’t pay off. Most volunteers didn’t make it past training and never began service.
Not doing your due diligence is not only bad for you, but it’s also bad for the volunteer. They’ve wasted their time, and they could have been already making a difference at an organization that’s a better fit.
2) Make Liberal Use of Social Proof
Human beings are heavily influenced by other human beings. We will adapt our behavior based on what we see other people doing. Psychologists have coined the phrase “social proof” to describe this phenomenon. Smart marketers and influencers also employ social proof to their advantage.
For leaders of volunteers, there are several ways social proof can help boost volunteer follow through.
They can use technology to highlight that other people are participating. Like it or not, we like to follow the crowd. It’s a basic human trait, so work with it.
Volunteer Managers can use tools like Evite and volunteer management software that includes social sharing and RSVP’s to track who’s coming to a shift or event. They can also invite participants to share why they’re excited about the project, convey what they hope to accomplish, and give high fives to their teammates.
If you mix logistical info with aspirations, it’ll add buzz to the event and stoke the powerful fires of FOMO (or the fear of missing out).
It’s powerful stuff.
3) Show Evidence of Future Impact
Volunteers are also highly motivated when they see concrete evidence of the results of their work. If a volunteer knows that specific movement will be made forward in the lives of individuals or the health of the organization – and that this momentum is dependent on them – they are much more likely to meet their commitment and not bail at the last minute.
If your organization delivers direct service (e.g., providing tax assistance) or is involved in the completion of something concrete (e.g., building playgrounds for underserved kids), then your work just got easier.
If so, you can simply interview someone for whom this product or service has made a significant difference in their lives. Focus on the transformation and what it feels like to be on the other side.
Then, share it with your volunteer team a few days before the event or shift, or even during orientation training. This will help drive home how much you rely on volunteers as important partners in mission execution.
For example, if volunteers assist with home improvements, have the homeowner talk about why having a roof over their heads that doesn’t leak gives them peace of mind.
Or, if you are hosting a walkathon, have people who will benefit from the funds raised talk about how this organization’s work changed their life or the life of a loved one.
You can share these testimonials in print, but it’s even better on video. Also, it’s important that these experiences are conveyed by people who have benefitted from your work, whenever possible. Hearing it firsthand is much more powerful than getting the word from paid staff.
Finally, people are volunteering for the cause, not the organization. So, keep stories focused on the greater good rather than focusing on how the organization or volunteer department benefits when people show up and commit.
4) Raffle Something Off
While transactional leadership may not the most effective strategy for leading today’s volunteers, prizes and quid pro quos can sometimes be beneficial if deployed correctly.
One such transaction is to give concrete rewards.
The simple fact is that people like to win things. In addition, people are motivated by scarcity. If they believe they will lose something in the future, they are more prone to act now.
So, to add a little spice to volunteer participation, offer the chance to win something, either through a raffle or friendly competition.
To increase scarcity, do this instead of giving everyone a gift. If everyone wins, there’s no palpable excitement – unless you’re giving away “super swag” a-la-Oprah!!
You can also offer other kinds of rewards that are also of value. See my post for ideas on other ways to reward volunteers.
5) Provide Food
Yes, this is an old tactic, but it still works. We like to be fed!
There’s a reason that leading corporations offer free food to their employees.
You can also pump up the social proof by getting specific community or business partners to sponsor some tasty treats for your volunteer teams or events. This demonstrates to volunteers that they have broad community support for what they are trying to accomplish.
6) Tickle Them
No, not literally.
But in today’s busy and distracted world, your volunteers may need reminders.
Send out an email invitation that includes the ability to add the event to their online calendar software. If possible, make sure that your event file has a calendar tickler, or reminder alert, already included.
Wondering what to say exactly? See some best practices on what to say in text and email reminders here.
If you aren’t that sophisticated, set up volunteer sub-teams and have the team leaders make old-fashioned reminder phone calls the day before the event.
7) Involve Volunteers in the Planning
This is arguably the most effective, but also the most time-consuming way to get volunteers to show up – invite them to help you plan.
People are more committed to something when they have a role in the decision-making process. Research has shown that participatory decision making can have real, positive impacts on organizational commitment. The more someone feels included, the greater their commitment to the outcome.
Inspiring people to actively participate takes time and effort. But, consider the alternatives. Does it really make sense to spin your wheels planning an event if you’re not going to have the turnout you need to get the job done?
In the end, planning by a committee may take longer, but you’ll reap the rewards of higher participation levels.
This is true with one caveat – the committee must be clear on its goals and well-led. If engagement doesn’t feel real or effective, it may reduce the depth of commitment in volunteers.
To build teams in the right way, check out my post on team-based volunteering.
Volunteer supervision isn’t easy, especially for time-strapped nonprofit staff. But if you invest some time upfront creating a culture of commitment that is embraced and led by volunteers, you’ll save time in the long run by not scrambling to find volunteers to fill missed shifts.
Volunteers aren’t cogs in a machine. They are complex human beings that have emotions that drive their behavior. They need to be engaged and inspired in order to be led.
So, next time you experience a lack of follow-through consider training on some of the tactics noted above. make sure you take the time to see whether the spark has been ignited before you set them up with an assignment.
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