Why aren't you firing more of your Volunteers?

Years ago I worked at a large and well known non-profit, as their volunteer coordinator. I’m not sure who I replaced to take the position, or if I did replace anyone. I say that because the program was anemic and struggling. Part of the challenge was that we looked at volunteers as free labor and had them doing some routine and boring work. Part of the challenge was that none of these volunteers were trusted, so our managers had to watch and monitor their work. Finally, another part of the challenge was that volunteers weren’t always the most consistent – in terms of arrival times, length of commitment, and lead time when they’d be on vacation. In other words, these volunteers were volunteers, not employees – and that made it hard to manage.

Sound familiar? Does your church struggle with the same issues?

Here are five things I learned while turning that program around:

1. Volunteerism is a two-way street – make sure they’re getting something from it too!
Volunteers value personal growth, so craft roles where real experience is gained, not just rote and routine work (that won’t even motivate your paid staff). They may use their new skills in their regular jobs (and/or use the experience to get a new job).

2. Volunteers are motivated by Impact.
You need to find high-value positions where volunteers can make real impact. When the work is challenging, has natural feedback loops, and people can see the impact they’re making, they’re likely to step up their commitment.

3. No one likes Draining Work!
I have the skills needed to pick up a phone, read a list of names and phone numbers, call people and read a script. I have those skills. But doing that work drains me. Just because a volunteer *can* do something doesn’t mean they *should*. Make sure that you pair people with work that breathes life into them!

4. Everyone is Different.
Just because one person doesn’t like cleaning up conference rooms doesn’t mean that someone else won’t like it. Just because one person doesn’t like fundraising doesn’t mean that someone else won’t love it. There’s no way to know unless you get to know your volunteers.

5. All Management is People Management!
The most important people in your organization that need training isn’t your volunteers, it’s your staff that manage volunteers. Helping them design appropriate positions, teaching them how to interview volunteer prospects, and regular coaching will go a long way in developing a vibrant program.

So if you find yourself in a position where your volunteers are skipping out, your staff are complaining, no one new is volunteering, and the volunteers you have now are in the wrong roles, maybe it’s time to clear the decks and start over. The best thing you can do for that volunteer that was guilted into a role that they hate is to “fire” them and then help them (and your staff) find a life-giving role where they’re thrilled to wake up in the morning.