How Not to Annoy and Alienate Your Volunteers

Do you lead volunteers? You may have a difficult job but volunteers often have a thankless one as well. Follow these common-sense tips so that you will not annoy and alienate your volunteers who help you achieve your goals.

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Motivated leaders and volunteers can transform an organization and a community. The right people can envision a different, better future and work tirelessly to mobilize like-minded people to provide guidance, support, and hands-on management.

But you can have talented people in your organization and miss the mark if you don’t align your efforts with individual and group needs. This summer, I took on a management-type volunteer role, where I learned firsthand what not to do in regard to dealing with a supporting cast. I didn’t meet my own expectations. But just as significantly, I realized that the organization’s team didn’t offer the understanding, encouragement, and services needed and promised.

Loosely, my job description involved the following duties:

  • recruit people
  • develop and offer incentives to encourage active participants
  • encourage and teach newbies
  • plan and host group events that fit the various needs of group members (often with disparate needs)
  • collect and handle money in a way that meshes with participant and group needs
  • get outside support for programs, projects, and activities
  • communicate with people throughout the year plus field more urgent questions closer to events

In summary, I carried  tried to carry the load for nurturing people in my area of influence, a role that would otherwise require a lot of work by the paid staff. So, I reasonably assumed that the paid team would respond to questions in a timely manner (within a week, for example), follow through on promises, etc. Sadly, that didn’t happen.

Really, I wanted to make a bigger difference. My capacity was limited for various personal and work reasons — which is often true for those in volunteer situations. We give as much as possible and rely on others to help fill the gaps.

Though I might describe my situation as extreme or unusual, I can say that I have experienced similar attitudes in other volunteer roles. Sometimes, those in an established organization simply go through the motions, greasing whatever wheels (they perceive) squeak most prominently and relying on past (ineffective) techniques to manage people and projects.

Having supervised volunteers myself, I know that being a guide, supporter, source of encouragement, etc. is neither simple nor easy. Still, I let team members know that my job is to solve their problems plus let them know that I appreciate not only their efforts but who they are, period.

If you find yourself in a leadership role (paid or non-paid), here are ideas on how not to annoy and alienate your volunteers:

Never coerce or pressure volunteers into accepting an assignment

A volunteer should feel called to serve, not pressured into handling a task or organizing a large project.

When recruiting, don’t downplay the hours and effort required to be successful

Be honest and clear about the challenges of the position for which you’re recruiting. If you don’t know the details, investigate them before asking someone to take on a job. If the job description is ambiguous (and many leadership roles are), say so.

Never say that “there’s not much to it” when describing a volunteer commitment. Accurately estimate and communicate the hours they may spend in both active management and behind-the-scenes tasks.

Keep promises

If you say that you will do X to smooth the way for the volunteer (and further your cause), please do X within a reasonable time frame — and not because the volunteer has reminded you repeatedly. If the volunteer must ask for an update after several days or weeks, you’ve failed. Own your mistake and apologize to maintain your credibility.

Leave yourself sticky notes or set up alerts on your phone or in your Google calendar if you need reminders.

Take care of problems presented by your volunteers

Don’t simply take a cursory action and say you tried to help but couldn’t.

Understand that one of your volunteers may have already spent hours and even weeks plus tons of creative energy trying to deal with a problem. Sure you may be the first call a volunteer makes. But there may be folks (like me) who ask for help not as an easy way out but as a desperate, last-ditch plea.

Leverage your connections and knowledge of the organization to provide a resolution. See the problem through to resolution.

Get to know volunteers so you can have a better understanding of their unique gifts and challenges

Volunteers know that you have difficulties, family relationships that are time consuming or troubling, work situations that are overwhelming, physical or mental health problems that are challenging.

But what about your volunteers? Did you know that the volunteer recently experienced a loss in her family? Did you realize that she has a chronic condition that makes certain tasks difficult? Learn about the people you work alongside, both their struggles and their strengths.

You don’t have to develop deep relationships with everyone but showing some sensitivity could be helpful. Knowing a few relevant facts about your volunteers can help you connect with them and support them in achieving their goals for the organization.

Avoid surprising volunteers with extra duties, oddly-timed meetings, or urgent issues

Provide a schedule of activities and deadlines as soon as possible. Realize that volunteers want to participate but they have other obligations that must be managed as well.

Consider offering times to get together for training and fellowship both during the day and in the evening to accommodate varied work schedules, family activities, and other commitments.

Follow up with volunteers

Check in regularly with volunteers, even when they don’t expect your contact.

Don’t assume that all is well unless you’ve heard about a problem, particularly if you have ignored unresolved problems in the past.

Initiate conversations about a project, program, or activity. Find out how things are going and what you can do to improve the experience for everyone involved.

You may be revved about the once-a-year volunteer appreciation breakfast, lunch, or dinner. But know that a general thank-you doesn’t mean much — if you’ve ignored volunteers for the other 364 days in the year.  To transform your organization, focus on the relationships among those with whom you serve. Be perceptive, grateful, and affirming and take the initiative to work, grow, and achieve together.

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