How to Keep Your Best Volunteers by Creating a Great Culture

April 13, 2015 — Leave a comment

A positive and productive culture within an organization is a must if the organization is going to be successful. Most people have been part of organizations where people are focused on keeping the status-quo, watching their backs, attempting to move up the hierarchic ladder, etc.

I believe that culture within nonprofit organizations is especially important because of the focus on serving others. If the culture is not built around good teamwork and helping other people within the organization, then there will not be success in serving clients and the needs of the community.How to Keep Your Best Volunteers by Creating a Great Culture

If you regularly lead volunteers and want to ensure that your best volunteers continue volunteering for you, then read and follow the steps I have listed below. These steps show you how to cultivate a positive culture and experience for the volunteers at your organization.

How do we attract and retain the best and the brightest [volunteers] when the culture is one of dispute, contentiousness, and rarely of the sacred nature of the work in which they are engaged?
Jeff Solomon and Richard Wexler, “Standards for Volunteer Leadership,” p. 9

One of the primary reasons for either the slow decay or quick demise of many volunteer programs is a lack for staff acceptance and support. Volunteers can only work effectively as part of a team. The other part of that team is paid staff. If volunteers are rejected as legitimate co-workers, both morale and performance suffers irreparably.
Marlene Wilson, The Effective Management of Volunteer Programs, p. 152

But there’s something else that keeps me coming back week after week in my limited free time. It begins when I walk through the door, and everyone is visibly happy to see me. The warmth I feel when I walk into the room erases any trace of a stressful day. . . Volunteering has provided me with an opportunity to feel the way I did as a camp counselor years ago: like I’m making a difference. But the people I volunteer with are making a difference in my life, too, by welcoming, accepting and challenging me week after week. And once again I couldn’t be happier.
Max Martinelli, “Making Time to Make a Difference”

I. DEFINITION

A. Definition for Volunteer Coordinators

A current state of affairs relating to the appreciation and use of volunteers at your organization.

B. Definition for Business and Nonprofit Organizations

“Everyone lives in and thus has a culture, and none of us can separate ourselves from that culture. We are part of it, and it is part of us. So how does it affect us and we it? Most people aren’t aware of the profound influence that culture has on us. We use culture to order our lives, interpret our experiences, validate our beliefs, and evaluate behavior—ours and that of those who share the culture (Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead, p. 13).

“Culture is both a ‘here and now’ dynamic phenomenon and a coercive background structure that influences us in multiple ways. Culture is constantly reenacted and created by our interactions with others and shaped by our own behavior. . . culture implies stability and rigidity in the sense that how we are supposed to perceive, feel, and act in a given society, organization, or occupation has been taught to us by our various socialization experiences and becomes prescribed as a way to maintain the ‘social order’” (Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th edition, p. 3).

II. YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE

Culture is ultimately created, embedded, evolved, and ultimately manipulated by leaders.
Edgar Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 4th edition, p. 3).

A. Take Responsibility for the Culture which Your Volunteers Enter into and Interact with.

B. “Good things happen when leaders take responsibility for creating an organization’s atmosphere and culture. They create: 1) A sense of destiny: We are here by God’s design to do His work. 2) A sense of family: We are in this together. 3) A militant spirit: We must get the job done at any cost” (The Maxwell Leadership Bible, p. 1417).

III. SHOW THE VALUE VOLUNTEERS BRING TO YOUR ORGANIZATION.

Volunteers should be reminded, again and again, that they’re valued; that what they’re doing is part of the redemptive drama that’s been going on throughout human history; that the role they are playing is not insignificant; that God treasures every task they perform, every hour of service they render.
Bill Hybels, The Volunteer Revolution, p. 116

A. Show It to:

1. each volunteer
2. staff
3. your board
4. leadership of the organization

B. Show It by:

1. quantifying the financial value your volunteers bring to your organization.

2. showing lots of pictures of the work your volunteers are doing.

3. asking clients for testimonials about the good work volunteers are doing.

a) “Designs to get evaluation feedback from clients and client groups about the success of volunteer work will help professionals validate their decisions about the use of volunteers, improve training, and make consultative supervision more effective” (The Volunteer Community, p. 63).

b) Ask for it in different ways

(1) in print
(2) in person
(3) on social media

4. using a Twitter hashtag so volunteers can share their own work

5. taking videos of your volunteers telling their stories about their favorite volunteer memory (Meridian, “Just Put That in My Bag”)

6. creating positive gossip

When someone praises one of your volunteers, tell that volunteer about it. Secondhand compliments almost seem to get more reinforcement value than when you praise volunteers yourself. . . When you hear someone say something nice about one of your volunteers, pass it on.
MacKee, The New Breed, pp 110-111

IV. CREATE TIME FOR SOCIAL INTERACTION AMONG VOLUNTEERS.

A. Socialization Is Often a request of Continuous Volunteers.

“[T]he majority of volunteers agreed that their expectations of the volunteering experience had been met. Their suggestion . . . more opportunities to get to know other volunteers” (Wilson, “Supporting Family Volunteers,” p. 5).

B. Social Interaction Creates and Keeps Passion of the Volunteers.

1. “In addition to developing strong mission and vision statements, building community is an effective way to create and restore passion. Sometimes board members and volunteers become victims of one of the four passion robbers: fatigue, frustration, lack of fulfillment, or boredom” (Ibid., p. 188).

2. “Respondents said they would appreciate and benefit from the opportunity to meet with other volunteers in a support group setting. They said that this opportunity would help them process, evaluate, and share their experiences” (Dkohlunf, “Factors Influencing Volunteer Turnover,” p. 219).

C. Social Interaction Transfers the Values of the Organization to the Volunteers.

D. Volunteers Might Discover Other Benefits to Volunteering through Socializing with Other Volunteers.

“The socialization process is a powerful means of transferring organizational norms and values and can greatly impact volunteers’ experiences. As an individual interacts with an organization and its culture, it is likely that the individual may be socialized to value different benefits or may even discover new benefits. Consequently, a volunteer may be motivated to continue volunteering for different reasons other than those that initiated his or her volunteering” (“More Than Motivation,” p. 393).

E. An Example

An example of an organization that has done a great job of creating social interaction among their volunteers is the Global Aid Network. Global Aid Network had what they called “advocates” which were volunteers all over the United States who worked all year long to gather materials, people, funds, and other items for people in need in Russia. Most of these items were sent to a distribution center where they were stored until the annual “pack out” event where volunteers would package up the materials and prepare them to be shipped.

A friend of mine used to be the coordinator of these volunteers and he would work all year long to try to get these various volunteers from different parts of the country to interact with each other. His goal was always to build a strong sense of family among the volunteers. He sent out monthly newsletters, shared prayer requests of the volunteers, and encouraged the volunteers to offer suggestions to each other. Additionally, at the annual pack out event at their distribution center he worked really hard to carve out time for the volunteers to simply talk to each other and get to know each other. This was a time that they could meet the people they might have talked to on the phone or heard about.

V. HAVE FUN.

A. Everyone Wants to Have Fun.

“Sometimes, passionate leaders of organizations that use volunteers have one drawback. These leaders—who are passionate about their cause—forget to laugh. Don’t become so serious about your cause and your mission that you forget to have fun” (MacKee, The New Breed, p. 108).

B. Fun Is a Great Motivator.

“Fun is an amazing motivator. Volunteer work can be stressful, but fun can serve as your most effective stress buster” (Mackee, The New Breed, p. 108).

C. All Things Being Equal; Volunteers Choose the Opportunity that Is Fun.

“Most volunteers, even if they already have a passion for your organization’s mission, prefer to volunteer in a fun environment where they can enjoy their assignments and co-workers. A fun environment also includes specific celebrations for appreciation” (Ibid., p. 109).

D. Ideas for Fun

1. Match volunteers with

a) family
b) coworkers
c) friends

2. Play music.

3. Provide food.

4. Light the area well.

5. Comfortable AC and heating

E. Hold Specific Celebrations.

When I was leading A Day of Hope I would get volunteers together for a pizza party. This was something we did a week or two after we had delivered our Thanksgiving baskets to families in need. The pizza party was a fun way to get the volunteers to celebrate the work we had done, it was a chance for me to praise the volunteers for their hard work, and it was a nice way to allow the volunteers to get to know each other.

VI. COLLABORATE WITH OTHER STAFF ABOUT HOW TO RUN THE VOLUNTEER PROGRAM.

To run a successful volunteer program with a good culture and positive experience for volunteers you will have to involve other staff at your organization. Here are some steps to involve your coworkers in the process of effectively leading volunteers.

A. People Support Things They Are a Part of and Have a Voice in.

A well known fact is that humans like to be part of the decision making process. No one likes to have things decided for them. If people are allowed to participate in the discussion of a topic, have their voice heard, and know that their thoughts were considered most people can accept the decision and go along with it even if they do disagree with it.

B. Answer Three Questions Together

1. How can the volunteers best help the organization fulfill its mission?
2. How can volunteers lighten the workload of our organization’s staff?
3. How can we best recognize and encourage our volunteers?

C. Develop Joint Goals.

If you set goals for your volunteers to accomplish be sure to involve other staff in deciding what those goals will be. Allow your coworkers to provide input on what work the volunteers can do and how much the volunteers can accomplish.

D. Plan Together.

If there are events or projects that require you as the volunteer coordinator to plan be sure to involve your coworkers in that planning. Allow your staff to provide ideas, feedback, and suggestions for how best to use volunteers within the project.

F. Make Commitments Together.

“Opportunities should be provided for professionals to discuss openly with their peers the importance and techniques of work with volunteers and to develop joint goals, plans, and commitments in this area” (The Volunteer Community, p. 62).

G. Ask Staff that Directly Work with Volunteers.

Most of all, if you have staff that have to directly manage and interact with volunteers you will want to give special attention to these people. Allow their voice the most weight in your decision making about how you manage your volunteer program. Involve these people in the discussions related to volunteerism within your organization.

VII. TRAIN STAFF ON HOW TO WORK WITH VOLUNTEERS.

Recruitment problems are lessened in organizations that invest in training for paid staff members who work with volunteers.
Hager and Brudney, “Problems Recruting Volunteers,”  p. 152

A. Nonprofits with No Training for Staff about How to Work with Volunteers Often:

1. Do not value volunteers.
2. Do not support volunteers’ work efforts.
3. Do not affirm the work volunteers do (Hagar and Brudney, 152).

B. When No Training Is Provided to Staff about How to Work with Volunteers, Volunteers Often Cite that They Sense Staff:

1. Are a block to both initiative and innovation.  

“A related theme is the problem of relationships with the professionals or supervisory staff. Some volunteer sense that the professionals are a block to initiative and innovativeness. Others cite a lack of consultative help in critical situations and a lack of orientation and training they need to do the job well. Perhaps one of the most frequent and serious problems in this area is the feeling that the staff expects full commitment to their particular activity even though the volunteer may have a variety of other legitimate priorities” (The Volunteer Community, p. 55).

2. Do not provide help in critical situations.

3. Do not provide an orientation or training that would equip volunteers to do a good job.

C. Train Your Staff.

The motivation to use volunteers will be enhanced if professional development opportunities are provided to help promote competence and confidence in the concepts and skills of recruiting, training, administering, and coordinating volunteers.
The Volunteer Community, p. 62

1. Send staff away to

a) conferences
b) workshops

2. Provide your own training

a) send emails
b) create a newsletter
c) provide trainings in person
d) create a volunteer tips sheet

VIII. GET SUPPORT FROM LEADERSHIP.

The motivations of the professionals to give priority to work with volunteers will be strengthened if the agency policy makers and administrators establish a climate that shows that they value the use of volunteers and encourage the devotion of professional time to recruiting, training, coordinating, and consulting with volunteers.
The Volunteer Community, p. 62

A. Nonprofit Management Needs to See the Value of Volunteers and Give Them a Priority when it Comes to:

1. recruiting
2. training
3. coordinating
4. consulting

B. How to get support from your leadership:

1. Quantify your volunteer program.

Regularly show the financial value that your volunteers bring to your organization. The best way to do this is take your state’s hourly wage for volunteers and multiply that by the total number of volunteers hours that you have per week, month, or year.

2. Regularly share stories and reports.

Include stories and reports about the positive work that your volunteers are doing anywhere, whenever, and however that you can. Include this information in your annual performance reviews with your supervisor. Share these stories in staff meetings with your coworkers, Provide information for your board of directors.

3. An Example

An example of sharing reports as a way to get support from leadership is when the United Way of Stanislaus County was evaluating if it should keep its Volunteer Center. The staff of the Volunteer Center provided monthly reports to the board of directors about how many volunteers were being recruited, how much money was saved by nonprofits that used those volunteers, and how many volunteer hours were being put into our community.  About a year later the board of directors of United Way of Stanislaus County saw that the Volunteer Center provided a good and needed service to the community. Therefore they decided to continue funding the program.

IX. VALUE THE INPUT VOLUNTEERS PROVIDE TO YOU AND YOUR ORGANIZATION.

Two features were identified as One-Dimensional by all four volunteer groups [in the study]: good communication with the organization and volunteers’ input valued by the organization.
Warner, Newland, and Green, “More Than Motivation,” p. 400, emphasis mine

This area will be explained in a future post.

X. PROVIDE CLEAR COMMUNICATION.

This was an entire post I wrote several weeks ago you can read here.

XI. CONCLUSION

At the beginning of this post you saw the “Culture Improvement Circle.” This is a visual representation of the steps you should take when working to establish a positive culture within your organization for volunteers. Most people find it most helpful to start in the center of the circle (step 1) and then work outwards (to step 10).

How to Keep Your Best Volunteers by Creating a Great Culture

Question: What other elements might be missing from the Culture Improvement Circle?

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above may be "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I also may have received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."