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Getting Volunteers Off To A Good Start

For many organizations, the new year means a new group of volunteers. And since volunteers are critical to the success of many small organizations, making a good first impression can go a long way towards creating a positive experience that motivates your new recruits to become active, committed team members.

Through our recent Small Membership Insight Survey we discovered that more than 65% of those recruiting, orienting and managing volunteers at small organizations are, in fact, volunteers themselves.  So while these volunteer managers have a keen, personal insight into the volunteer perspective, it may also mean there are limited resources and time available for orienting and managing new recruits. So we've gathered some tips and resources to help get your volunteers off to a good start this year.

So to ensure volunteers get started right and keep them coming back it’s important to:
  • make volunteers feel welcome
  • help volunteers understand how their work will make a difference
  • motivate and challenge volunteers
  • say thanks and reward volunteers

Creating a welcoming first impression

Whether you have a few new recruits for a specific project, or you’re going through an entire changing of the guard at the board level, offering a warm welcome at the start lays the foundation for building a meaningful relationship. After all, the first day or first meeting is kind of like a first date. If volunteers don’t get a positive feeling about the organization and the work they’ve signed up for, they may not make it to the second date and can go looking for a more compatible organizational partner with whom to share their volunteer time and skills.

In her article - Preparing for the Volunteer's First Day - Susan J. Ellis (Energize Inc.) reminds us that “[it] may have taken some courage to offer to get involved with your organization, but your initial interview made the volunteer feel welcome. Now, how well day one goes will have a lasting impact on this volunteer's long-term commitment.”

Ellis’s article (Excerpted from Focus on Volunteering KOPYKIT™: Ready-to-Print Resources for Volunteer Organizations) offers suggestions for the volunteer's first day:
  • The Greeting - ...make sure that staffer knows that the volunteer is due and says something along the lines of "Oh yes ... welcome aboard!" It's amazing how motivating it is to feel that you are expected.
  • Physical Orientation - Apart from the things you will want to tell the new volunteer about the actual work to be done, recognize that all newcomers need to get their bearings in an unfamiliar environment. Show the volunteer such creature-comfort things as the coat closet, ...the rest rooms, and where to get coffee. Begin your tour with the volunteer's own work space, pointing out where colleagues and supervisors sit.
  • Initial Work Assignment - Nothing says "we need you" more effectively than having work prepared for the volunteer to do right away....Having basic procedures written out is useful. ...Most of all, remain accessible to the volunteer as she or he begins the work.
  • Formal Orientation - All volunteers, regardless of their assignment area, deserve to receive an orientation about the organization itself. This formal session may or may not be given on the volunteer's first day, however. As long as it occurs sometime within the first month or so, it has a positive effect.
  • Ending the First Day - Be around when the volunteer's shift is over. Review work done and give some feedback. ...Verify the next time he or she will be coming in and express pleasure at having a new member on the team. Such courtesies are not just for show. They are part of the process of making the volunteer want to return again and again.

Demonstrate how the volunteer’s efforts will make a difference

Every volunteer has his or her own reasons for getting involved with your organization. They may want to give something back to their community or their profession. But in addition, they want to gain a sense of accomplishment for their endeavors and know that their efforts made a difference.

In a Nonprofit Blog Carnival round-up that we hosted about Improving the Volunteer Experience, we included a great post by Joanne Fritz about the importance of  “enchanting your volunteers.” Joanne quotes Guy Kawasaki (from his book Enchanted) who advises organizations to:

...make your goals for volunteers ambitious ones. If there is one thing that volunteers want, it's to know that they are doing something important and that they are really making a difference. So don't waste your volunteers' time by setting piddling goals. It's a terrible waste. Make your goals big, even grandiose. It's much better to overuse volunteers than to underuse them, and better to reach for the impossible than to settle for the merely doable.

Motivating volunteers to ensure it is a rewarding experience

In gathering a list of posts and resources on volunteering, I re-read a post by Rebecca Leaman that offers some insight into volunteer motivation: Motivating your volunteers Needs Barriers and Psychology 101. In the post, Rebecca explains:

Rewards are not the most powerful kind of human motivation — because a reward by definition follows the act. Motivation, on the other hand, is what gives the volunteer a reason to step up in the first place.  And just as there are two ways to reward someone — to give something they like, or take away something they don’t like — motivation also has two sides.

We can create opportunities to volunteer that are designed meet the needs of our supporters, or we can remove the barriers that might keep them from volunteering.

Ideally, we’ll do both — but removing the barriers has to come first, if volunteer activities can hope to compete with all the other attractive demands on busy people’s time and attention.

Saying thanks and recognizing efforts

As we’ve noted in past blog posts, organizations often think a lot about volunteer recognition during Volunteer Week, but it’s important to thank volunteers regularly and let them know that all of their efforts are appreciated and make an impact on the organization. So make volunteer recognition a priority for the entire organization - and get buy-in from Committee Chairs and event organizers through to the Board of Directors.  Say thank you often and sincerely.

Make a volunteer resolution for this year

Volunteers are the lifeblood of many associations, non-profits and clubs. So to ensure individuals have an enjoyable volunteer experience that leads to becoming engaged, active members of your organization, make a resolution to welcome new volunteers right this year.

If you are a volunteer, think back to when you joined the organization - what was it that drew you in and made you feel welcome? What was your perception of the organization? To make this a win-win situation for your organization and the new volunteer - what experience will you offer to get them off to a good start?

More ideas and resources:


Wild Apricot Blog:

Resources in our Membership Knowledge Hub:

Photo credit: Volunteer Group raising hands - from Big Stock

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Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]
Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]
Published Tuesday, 15 January 2013 at 8:30 AM
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