Saturday, April 10, 2010

Recruiting and Retaining the Best Volunteers

Having shared the fact that volunteers give ten times more than non-volunteers, and having focused on the board of directors as our most important volunteer opportunity, let’s now look at the criteria by which we can choose the best volunteers and ways that we can employ their talents and altruism to the greatest effect.

In a nutshell, the volunteers we should be looking for are “aligners” -- they align their beliefs with their actions, they seek alignment of purpose with others in their personal and professional lives, and they align with institutions that represent an extension of their deepest held values and, through them, to share the meaning of their lives with others. “Great,” you say, “so where to we find these people?” To which I say, “Well, you have to begin every search by first knowing what you’re looking for.” We must look for this specific characteristics:

  • Those who live their beliefs. Research shows that religious people (and it doesn’t matter what religion) give more and that regular attendance at church correlates powerfully with generous philanthropy. But we should also be alert to those who live their beliefs through community service and other sustained actions.
  • Family people. Many wonderful volunteers are rooted in strong families and/or see volunteer work as a “family of purpose.” Again, research shows that those who have multiple family connections within a institution of higher learning volunteer more and give more. The institution and the family are aligned. I believe far too many institutions fail to recognize and reinforce these multiple family connections and fail to recognize and recruit families of purpose around specific strategic initiatives. Obviously, through effective parent programs schools, colleges and universities have a way to not only engage productive volunteers but to “adopt” whole families. Specific volunteer opportunities and programs for couples who met and married on our campuses allows them to still be together while giving to others. Similarly, family events allow our volunteers to serve others without sacrificing their time with their loved ones.
  • Unassuming people. The best of our volunteer donors are not given to conspicuous consumption. As we have seen in so many instances, they often live understated lives and surprise us with the depth of their generosity. And, because they are unassuming, they don’t always come at us; we have to go find them. They do not make loud statements about the themselves but they will speak up for what they believe in.
  • Team players but not lemmings. Remember aligners work both ways; they will subordinate their egos to achieve alignment of purpose but they will become distressed when an institution’s deeds start to wander from its ideals. And, this is what we want. We want our volunteers to tweak our consciences and remind us of our founding purposes. Yet, too often, I have seen a tendency to recruit compliant volunteers who are less animated by principle -- and the result is predictable; they don’t make many waves or many contributions.

“Okay,” you say again, “now that we know what we’re looking for, where do we find these people?” To which I say, “You will find them by their deeds. Look within your research. Which of your prospects manifest these tendencies? “

You say, “Um, er, we don’t have that kind of information in our research.”

To which I say, somewhat obnoxiously, “So what does that tell you? That you’ve been chasing wealth and ignoring true philanthropic propensity?”

You say, “Save the sermons. Offer solutions.”

“Touche,” I say, “Then, let’s start conducting a better kind of research. Let’s develop smart questionnaires and interview techniques that will lead us to those who possess the most desired volunteer traits. At every point of engagement -- telefund calls, event interactions, development calls, alumni surveys, focus groups -- let’s start asking more probing and productive questions.”

And you know what? I bet when the word gets out that you’re being very discerning, that you’re looking far and wide for solid, unassuming aligners, that you’re being highly selective about the kind of people that you put into your most important volunteer slots, interest in your institution will grow and you’ll attract better and better volunteers. But this is not the “happily ever after” part of the story. You still have to find interesting and substantive work for these exceptional volunteers if you want to keep them aligned with your institution.

The best way to make the best use of the best volunteers is to give them the institution’s most important work. Putting them on a fund raising committee and providing them with the occasional dog-and-pony show won’t do it. If you want them to give more and, perhaps, raise more, you have to let them closer to the core. Standing volunteer bodies or task forces (and I think most of us could do with more task forces and fewer standing bodies) should be asked to help us reach enrollment goals (e.g. a higher yield of high achievers or great socio-economic diversity in the face of demographic change), grateful patient yields, improvements in campus life (including a candid examination of student frustrations and crises), curricular reviews, accreditation visits, changing research emphases, and strategic opportunities and challenges.

Life is about who we spend time with and what we work toward. If we take the time to think about who we’re looking for, we’re more likely to find them and, if we make them partners in the core enterprise, we’re more likely to keep them and ourselves working more happily, and productively, ever after.

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