Following & Leading Volunteers – 7 Things

By my count, in the last year I’ve given volunteer hours to between 12-15 organizations, from packing books and stamping envelopes to mentoring organizers and DJing a fundraiser.

And as a facilitator I sometimes help organizations come up with plans for creating more supportive environments for volunteers. These ideas come from both my love of volunteering and getting to eavesdrop on organizational creativity. I think these seven are particularly good for those of us that work with groups with little or no staff – we aren’t off the hook!

1. Use Short Campaigns/”Campañitas” Most organizations experience some level of volunteer turnover every 2-3 months. I’ve found we can harness that natural energy flow (in and out) both by having a clear 6-month calendar, when possible, and by using short campaigns or volunteer cycles. If you need to raise $5,000 in 60 days, why not make it the “$5k in 50!” campaign? And ask volunteers to take on specific roles with higher time commitments for two months, to be followed by a break. The same goes for more labor-intensive events: Ask for commitment ahead of time, and space these out. Here in Austin one organization is planning a “Campañita/Mini-Campaign” to galvanize underutilized volunteers to each recruit 2 new members each week for 4 weeks, with daily outreach bookended by a training for new members and a low-key live music party. And the DC Fund is in the midst of setting important dates for the entire year. The more cyclical we become, the easier it is for our volunteers to make time in advance.

2. Seed Spontaneity / Harvest Brilliance – I find that even with rigorously planned events or programs, brilliant volunteers often find unexpected ways to make them better. Fresh eyes see more clearly. And I’ve found it doesn’t cost me much to ask, in the moment, “How would you do this?” “Do you see anything missing?” (This is another blog post, but I’ve seen collective planning to embrace spontaneity and emergence be transformative in nurturing that spirit. Yes, planning for spontaneity!)

3. Offer a Clear Path Up/Forward – Many volunteers are comfortable performing one set task or role, but I’ve found that when they have the “menu” of options, they’re more likely to consider stepping up their involvement. Some organizations even offer their volunteers clear paths to become core leaders or staff. That seed is planted from the first interaction – it might germinate down the road, or might not – and communicates the value of internal transparency.

4. Go the Extra Appreciation Mile – A volunteer-powered organization here in Austin asks some of its most generous donors to organize quarterly volunteer appreciation dinners. Another I know slyly tracks volunteer birthdays and surprises them with calls and letters.

5. “Can We Do This While Playing [culturally appropriate game]?” I’ve been trying to more consistently ask myself these questions when managing volunteer time, to create more room for upbeat energy and creativity: How can we turn this rote task into a game? Is there a way to make this activity more challenging (for instance, if we have teenage volunteers)? When is a good time for a dance break? (h/t DCF Grantmaking Team)

6. Use Volunteer Mentors! – Especially if you have a volunteer “menu” of options for plugging-in, it’s nice to have another volunteer walk new recruits through it. This also helps build cross-relationships outside of the in-groups that often exist among volunteers (ie, Juanita was invited in by her friend Charles, and doesn’t know Silvia, who has been around a while).

7. Follow the Energy That Exists – For over a year now the DC Fund Board of Instigators has known that we could really use an infusion of volunteer wattage towards our Communications Team. We’ve had trouble even getting a bimonthly e-newsletter off the ground! But the energy we needed to make it happen didn’t show up until… this month. Instead, several talented volunteers wanted to help grantees connect more deeply with each other, and the Enlace-Link program was brought into existence. To our credit we didn’t try to steer them towards a project that might be considered more fundamental, we encouraged E-L to experiment, stagger forward and begin to flourish. And somehow, we survived without an e-newsletter.

What do you think, Internet? What have you seen work?

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