Valuing the efforts of volunteers is essential to the long-term success of any organization that utilizes them.
From stuffing envelopes to facilitating strategic planning sessions, volunteers help us respond to the needs of our constituents, clients and consumers. From making phone calls to planning fundraising events, volunteers help us realize our organizational goals. From attending meetings to serving in leadership roles, volunteers help us build a stronger community. Volunteers are vital to the work of nonprofit organizations, and valuing their efforts ensures that our community will endure.
There are many ways to value volunteers. The following five ways have proven most successful to me in my work with volunteers of different generations, from myriad nonprofits, and with diverse goals.
Recognize Personal Strengths
Volunteers come to organizations with differing backgrounds and experiences. They may be nine-year olds attending an event with a parent, or 67-year-olds who recently retired as fundraising professionals. Each of them has something to offer, and it is our responsibility to engage with them and sort out how they can help us achieve our goals. Perhaps the nine-year old can hand out t-shirts or put stamps on envelopes; perhaps the 67-year old can plan a fundraiser or develop a marketing plan.
Take the time (maybe through a 30-second conversation, or through numerous conversations over months) to talk with volunteers, find out what they are good at, and identify opportunities for them to be good at that with your organization. Recognizing each volunteer’s personal strengths is a concrete way to value the individual and make sure she or he continues to assist your organization.
Provide Meaningful Work
Once you become adept at recognizing personal strengths, you need to value your volunteers by providing meaningful work. This includes identifying and communicating various volunteer engagement opportunities. Providing numerous entry points for volunteers will increase your volunteer base and encourage different types of volunteers to engage with your organization. Consider developing opportunities for each of the following types of volunteering:
- Leadership volunteering, or opportunities to help guide the organization (e.g., serving on a board or chairing a committee).
- Sustained volunteering, or opportunities to provide an ongoing service or activity for the organization (e.g., teaching a class or working with individual clients).
- Single-event volunteering, or opportunities to participate in a one-day event or activity (e.g., an envelope stuffing party, community clean-up day or t-shirt distribution).
- Membership volunteering, or opportunities to join the organization and attend regularly scheduled meetings (e.g., service organizations or associations).
Providing meaningful work is a strong way to value volunteers and make sure they are committed to helping your organization.
Supply Necessary Tools
In order to help your organization and value your volunteers, you must supply (or identify) the necessary tools for them to do the work. This could range from paintbrushes or stamps to training and a budget, but whatever is needed to get the work done should be thoughtfully supplied (or identified) by your organization.
For example, if you are painting a wall and know that you will be hosting six volunteers, provide at least six paintbrushes—or ask your volunteers to bring their own. If you are stamping envelopes, have the stamps (more than you think you might need) and envelopes purchased and ready to go, or identify a volunteer to pick them up beforehand. If a volunteer is working with clients, make sure she or he has the metaphorical tools and concrete skills to do that work. If a volunteer is planning an event, provide a budget and support the decisions made within that budget. Fundamentally, this communicates to the volunteer that you value her or his time and that you have thought through what it takes to get the work done.
Seek Input and Feedback
Getting the work done is important, but getting the work done better might be equally important. It will also help your volunteers understand how much you value them. Seeking input about processes and ideas—or taking a moment to check in with a volunteer while volunteering—lets her or him know that you are open to change and understand that sometimes the person who is doing the work has greater insight into how to better accomplish it.
During an event, find a minute with a volunteer and say, “You are doing a great job with this—is there any way we can make it better/easier/more efficient for you?” Seeking feedback after the engagement affirms to your volunteers that you care about their contributions and believe they have more than just time and labor to offer. The act of seeking feedback can range from a quick conversation or simple paper form to a complex email survey. The important thing to note about both input and feedback is that you need to respond to it. You don’t have to do everything a volunteer suggests, but part of valuing the volunteer involves explaining your decisions as a result of her or his feedback.
Give Appreciation and Gratitude
This is both the simplest and most complex way to value volunteers—and it is a fundamental responsibility of an organization. It’s the simplest because thanking volunteers can be accomplished with a simple handshake or hug; it’s the most complex because volunteers don’t always like to be thanked in the same ways, or with the same amount of enthusiasm.
If appropriate, take the time to know your volunteers and express your appreciation in a way she or he will accept. Remember, the act of appreciation is an opportunity for you to value your volunteers and help them understand how their work helps accomplish the overarching goals of your organization. The act of gratitude allows you to speak with the voice of the community you are serving and impart the value of the volunteer’s good work. Giving appreciation and gratitude is vital to the long-term success of any organization that utilizes volunteers, as they can choose to volunteer elsewhere if they do not feel valued.
The United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently shared this comment in celebration of International Volunteer Day: “Volunteering fosters creativity, draws strength from our passions and connects us to those who need us most. Volunteerism is a global phenomenon that transcends boundaries, religions and cultural divides. Volunteers embody the fundamental values of commitment, inclusiveness, civic engagement and a sense of solidarity.” We prosper as a community as a result of volunteer efforts—which makes valuing volunteers a top priority for your organization. iBi
Jon C. Neidy is Executive Director of the Smith Career Center at Bradley University and a longtime community volunteer with a range of organizations.
Mr. Neidy sheds light on the key elements of utilizing volunteers as a powerful workforce. Most importantly, by empowering a volunteer to perhaps do work during their free time, may be an opportunity for them to do what they love the most and find most rewarding about their life. Not to mention, while maintaining a sense place and worth.