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Cheers to More Volunteers

A team of reliable volunteers is like a team of Clydesdales, always ready to pull the load. But if your organization is like others in this country, you’ve probably lost a good number of volunteers these past few years.

A report compiled by the Census Bureau and AmeriCorps noted that from September 2020 to September 2021, about 23% of Americans volunteered, the lowest percentage in 20 years. The pandemic had a hand in the decline, as people avoided contact with others and then didn’t return to pre-COVID activities for a lot of reasons. Now though, as concerns about COVID wane, you might want to consider rejuvenating your efforts to recruit and retain volunteers, especially if you plan events for a nonprofit association or host events on behalf of a destination. Here are some ideas.

Don’t stop recruiting

Are you always recruiting volunteers? If not, it’s time to make your efforts “ongoing” instead of “as needed.” If you haven’t already, add a volunteer section to your website. Stack it with all sorts of information. Include a section that breaks out volunteer opportunities by the amount of time required or that lists them by skills needed. Pop a bright banner and link on your home page with an upbeat message like “Volunteers are our special sauce.” Do Q&A interviews with volunteers and publish them on the site and post them on Facebook. Use social media to spread the word about specific needs: “Hey, how’d you like to meet people from 20 countries? We need greeters at the airport Tuesday.” Invite current volunteers to bring a friend or two when they are volunteering. Welcome these friends and their questions about volunteer commitments. And above all, remember what an expert on volunteering told the Washington Post recently: “The most commonly cited reason why people volunteer, period, is because people ask them to volunteer.”

As the world turns, add new spins

The world is always changing, and if we are wise, we change the way we do things to adjust. It might be time to look at new approaches to putting your volunteers to work. Working from home is huge now, and while some people like volunteering because it gets them out of the house, others might be just as happy to help you out from home. And why not? With a phone and a laptop, there’s a lot that they could do from their kitchen table. Or maybe they are short on time but would consider devoting their lunch hour to help you if they could do the work virtually. Virtual volunteering is a natural for organizations whose members and supporters are scattered about the country or world. Micro-volunteering is another way to give people a way to get involved in a way that fits their schedule. These might be short-term commitments and involve volunteers with specific skills, like the master gardener who can suggest plants for the ballroom, the lawyer who reviews a contract pro bono or the editor who proofreads a conference website.

You can’t say thank you enough

Of course, you will lose volunteers along the way as lives and situations change, but you will retain a good number if you treat them right. Remind them frequently why the work they do is valuable with messages like, “Our attendees talked about how much they appreciated the care you took in answering their questions” or “Because of you, we got our gala invitations out in record time and are already seeing an increase in attendance from last year.” Make sure that volunteers feel connected, both to people in the organization and to other volunteers. A sense of belonging is critical to a longstanding commitment. Have multiple thank-you options on hand to express appreciation to your volunteers: special helper happy hours; volunteer recognition breakfasts; volunteer awards; little gifts. Small tokens of thanks can be big hits. Just ask one nonprofit whose volunteers loved — and quickly devoured — bags of Swedish Fish they were given after they helped set up for a dinner with an undersea theme. It was a sweet thank-you, literally.

Deliver the details

Don’t be vague. Let potential volunteers know exactly what volunteering for your organization entails. Do they need to have particular skills? Will they be trained? How much time — per week, per month, per year — is involved? Is the work flexible, or is there a set schedule? Is the volunteer position a short stint or long term? Take the time to put all the important information about every volunteer job in writing. It’s time well spent, and going forward, you’ll be able to hand over the info or email it to prospects. After you compile the descriptions, run them by current volunteers or leadership so they can catch any details you might have left out. Top off these descriptions with information about how volunteering benefits the volunteer. For example, “You’ll meet fellow citizens with similar interests,” or “You’ll help our nonprofit save X amount of dollars that can be put toward our mission.”

Treat volunteers like pros

More than a few volunteers have bowed out after feeling left adrift by the organizations that recruited them. As one responder, a self-described volunteer addict, put it on Reddit, managing a volunteer should be no different from managing an employee. Volunteers need to have a manager, someone who will reach out to answer questions and concerns, makes sure they understand tasks and also reinforces the organization’s appreciation of their work. To ensure volunteers are knowledgeable about your organization, have an orientation session and a tour. Ask several leaders to talk to them. Add volunteers to your mailing lists. Loop them in on important news in whatever way you communicate with others involved in your organization. And provide them with training. Uninformed volunteers don’t reflect well on your organization, and that’s not their fault. It’s yours.