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Making the Most of Volunteers

In “Not Normal: 7 Quirks of Incredible Volunteers,” coauthors Adam Duckworth and Sue Miller wrote about how to get the most out of being a volunteer. Now, on the heels of that 2015 book comes “Leading Not Normal Volunteers,” in which the coauthors share tips on how to hang on to great volunteers.

In a recent interview, Duckworth, lead communicator at Downtown Harbor Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, shared five principles that help organizations retain volunteers. For the many meeting planners who rely on volunteers to pull off their meetings or conferences, here are Duckworth’s first two tips. I’ll share the remaining three in next month’s column.


Get the Right People in the Right Places

If you want a cadre of solid, effective volunteers, you have to first evaluate their skills and interests. “People are gifted in a certain way,” Duckworth said, “so when they serve and volunteer outside their gift mix, it drains them, and it drains you. They don’t want to keep showing up every week because basically they are in the wrong place.”

It takes effort to ensure that volunteers land in the right slots, but the work pays off, according to Duckworth.

“There is a lot of prep work on the front end dealing with volunteers,” said Duckworth. To determine skills, “you could do an inventory of gifts — a test they would take. Or, up front, they could sit down for a cup of coffee with the leader, who could get to know them and find out how they would like to serve.”

Effective volunteer operations also are flexible and make room for volunteers to move into different roles. Volunteer leaders must make this clear from the start so that volunteers will be comfortable as they are asked to take on new responsibilities.

“There should be a mind-set when people sign up to volunteer that the first position they land in is not going to be the last position they land in,” said Duckworth.


Ask for What You Really Need

Volunteer leaders must be clear about the commitment required and explain why the commitment is important. “We are oftentimes afraid to ask people for a commitment because they are volunteers,” Duckworth said. Yet most volunteers will happily get on board when they understand the organization’s vision and mission.

Said Duckworth, “You have to have a vision worth serving for. And if you can’t articulate your vision, don’t expect them to show up in the first place or expect them to say, ‘OK, I am going to sign up for what you really need.’”

Duckworth uses his own experience to demonstrate the importance of organizational vision. Years ago, he was told he would be needed to volunteer every week to lead a youth program. He protested: “I don’t have time!” But when the volunteer coordinator explained that weekly gatherings with youth were the best way to forge relationships with children and their families, Duckworth instantly understood why the weekly commitment was mandatory. “I might have walked away had I not understood the vision and its importance,” he said.

Unfortunately, many volunteer leaders ask for a minimal commitment from volunteers, Duckworth said. They fear they will scare a volunteer away if they ask for what they really need. However, the opposite is true, according to Duckworth. “What we have found is when you actually ask for what you need and you tell someone interested in volunteering, ‘Here is what our organization’s needs are, and based on our conversation and your gifts and how you are wired, we feel it would be a huge benefit to us if you would do that,’ we find that people respect the ‘ask’ rather than an ask for a minimal commitment. If you are going to ask for a minimal commitment, you are going to get a minimal result.”