Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Seven Secrets to Successful Volunteer Engagement

1. Be Grateful

No one wants to work for an organization that just expects others to give their time or, even worse, that acts as if it is doing the volunteers a favor. Too often
I have seen organizations treat volunteers only as a force to be managed. While management is required, volunteers also need to be valued and inspired. Begin each meeting with volunteers the way some airlines end flights, by saying that you realize they have choices and you are glad they have chosen your organization. The best of volunteers are the most involved and most courted. Don’t make the mistake of taking them for granted.

2. Be Selective

Take your time in building volunteer bodies. Look for constructive people who share your organization’s values and purposes. A small, highly-engaged group will be far more effective, and will have a far more satisfying experience than a large, unwieldy body. The more selective you are in choosing volunteers, the more complimented they will be and the more others will vie to join. If you depend heavily on volunteers and use your most effective front line staff to manage them, remember that your organization can move no faster than the most obstinate, obdurate volunteer. One bad choice slows the entire fleet and diminishes the impact of your most accomplished professionals. Take the time to get to know a potential volunteer. Asking volunteers to serve on a board at the first meeting is like asking someone to marry you on the first date; you look desperate if you ask and they look desperate if they agree. Desperation is not the stuff of lasting, productive relationships.

3. Be Strategic

An effective volunteer body, like a good organization, is created by assembling people of varying talents. What’s the right skill set for your board? Do you have the right balance of creative, legal, financial and entrepreneurial talent? Do you have the right gender and geographical balance? Do you have too many people with similar backgrounds? If so, you may not be getting the variety of perspectives you need despite the size of your board. You may be getting the same viewpoint over and over. That could cause blind spots for your organization. The result could be poor decisions and market losses. Conversely, nothing is more impressive to a potential volunteer to be told, "We have a gap in our volunteer organization that needs to be filled with someone of your background and ability -- and we know of no one we would rather have."

4. Be Honest

Yes, there is powerful correlation between the time and the amount one gives to philanthropy. That clear and compelling fact has caused some organizations, however, to make up volunteer duties in hopes of raising more money. It won’t work for long because discerning volunteers soon realize that there’s really nothing for them to do; that they’re being shined on so they will give. Increasingly, I see donors growing suspicious of all volunteer requests for this very reason. The best of them don’t need or want to be humored. They understand the need for money; they just wonder why organizations have to be so oblique in their approaches. If you’re building a volunteer board, focus on the talent that your organization most needs. And, yes, there’s no problem in looking for a confluence of talent and generosity. But if you really have no need for volunteers, or no inclination to really make use of their talents, be honest – with them and yourselves. I see too many boards with too little to do. And I don’t believe in fund raising boards; the simple fact is that most people are not good at it. There is no better fund raiser than an accomplished professional. They don’t need volunteers to help them ask; they need volunteers to open doors, to advocate, to host events and convene meetings. In short, their need volunteers to advocate gracefully within their sphere of influence. They need to find the comfort zone of each volunteer and work within it. As I have written earlier, there are many ways of engaging volunteers for the purpose of fund raising without making up boards or faux volunteer duties. These options include conducting interviews to reveal prospects’ animating passions or to test the feasibility of a project, offering invitations to strategic planning sessions, urging involvement in brainstorming around new project creation, and making requests to review drafts of project white papers.

5. Be Creative

Make full use of your volunteers’ talents. When we become too short-term in our thinking and try to focus volunteers’ efforts only on fund raising, we restrict their ability to engage others, to advocate, and to fuel our cause with their passion. Ask volunteers to share their expertise on our behalf. If we have a tax expert on our board, ask her to conduct a seminar exclusively for other donors, prospects and volunteers. If one of our volunteers is a great cook, ask him to prepare a meal for top donors as a part of our stewardship program. If we have an amateur historian, ask him to lead a tour or give a lecture as part of our creative engagement of new prospects. The possibilities are endless but we really don’t know what assets we have until we explore what our volunteers have to offer, including otherwise hidden talents or insights.

6. Be Open

We say we want our organizations to “friend raise” but we often practice a weird form of friendship. We talk more than we listen and we brag incessantly about our virtues and accomplishments, often acting as if we have no real problems or challenges. Is that how we treat friends in real life? Don’t we confide in the best of our friends? Aren’t we complimented when a friend confides in us? So confide in your volunteers. Share real struggles and challenges with them. Let them help you with the tough stuff. I once asked a highly sought after volunteer what my organization could offer him that would make him want him to come on board. He said, “A clean shot at a really important problem.” Good people want to make a difference. Give them a chance.

7. Be Precise

It’s as important to let your volunteers know where you don’t need their help as it is to let them know where you do. I hear some professionals complain about an over-reaching board or an intrusive volunteer but, in many cases, the problem can be traced back to their own lack of clear direction or a tendency to try to cultivate volunteers through ingratiation and placation. The problem, then, is not one of “volunteer management” but of management itself. Be precise in the duties you want your volunteers to take on, in the term of their service, and the expectations you have for their giving. And the best time to be precise is when a volunteer is being recruited. You should have a "Vision, Mission and Goals" statement for every volunteer body and a job description for every volunteer position.

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