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Keeping Great Volunteers

Last month, Adam Duckworth, a church leader at Downtown Harbor Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, talked about two of the five principles he and co-author Sue Miller cover in “Leading Not Normal Volunteers.” The book, published this spring, helps volunteer leaders learn to better manage and retain volunteers.

Duckworth and Miller’s first two principles, covered in last month’s column are the following: Put volunteers in roles that fit their skills, and ask them for what you really need.

Here are the other three principles for retaining great volunteers.

Get Out of Their Way

Leaders of volunteer organizations sometimes go overboard trying to oversee volunteers, Duckworth said. “A lot of leaders like to micromanage little things within someone’s volunteering role,” he said. ”What we found is if you get out of their way and allow them the freedom to function in the role for the vision you have asked them to serve for, they will stay in the game longer and develop an ownership mentality. Getting out of their way helps them stay in the game for the long haul.”

At the same time, volunteers should never operate outside of the organization’s vision, according to Duckworth. “But this is not to say you have to act on every idea your volunteers have,” he said. ”It is not the volunteer’s role to change the vision of what they are serving for.”

Use Varied Training Tools to Help Volunteers Develop

You have to train your volunteers, Duckworth said, but training shouldn’t be limited to an annual mandatory training session. Because different people learn in different ways, it is best to use varied educational strategies. “Don’t just use one form of communication; use them all because, odds are, not everybody is seeing them all,” he said.

Send volunteers blogs to read, podcasts they can listen to, and tweets, Facebook posts, Pinterest groups and other social media that share news, tips and information, Duckworth said. “You will never get every volunteer to sign up or to read a blog or read every Facebook group post, but if you provide snippets in different formats, over the course of time they will read one or more of those things.”

Encourage Volunteers to Express Ideas

Because volunteers need to feel that someone is listening to them, leaders must be accessible. “They need to feel they can come up and express their ideas, even if the answer is no,” said Duckworth. “If you are a leader who is so unreachable that volunteers can’t get in touch with you, chew on your ear at a meeting or say hello, or if you fail to show up to any trainings because you can’t be bothered, we think eventually they will not want to serve under someone who leads in that way.”

That does not mean, however, that the volunteer leader or coordinator is the only person who can do the listening. For example, Duckworth has set up networks of coaches to help him lead volunteers, spreading leadership and listening across several people. During regular meetings with his team of coaches, he asks them to share issues they are hearing within the organization’s volunteer ranks. These coaches relay volunteers’ ideas and issues, and suggest tweaks and changes.

For more information about Duckworth and Miller and their book, visit