In honor of National Volunteer Week, let’s take a look at managing volunteers in true Createquity fashion–from a research-based perspective.
Volunteers do a lot for arts organizations. They get mailings out the door, they get audience members to their seats, they bring in thousands of dollars, and they contribute their professional expertise to organizations they care about. But somehow, the management of those volunteers always gets pushed to the back burner. There’s not much conversation about it, not many classes being taught about it, and not a whole lot of research going on about it. Volunteers do so much for us, and the beauty of it is, they want to (they like it!). So how do we help them to help us?
Easy- we build them a social network.
This isn’t an online social network, although this post takes inspiration from what works in online social networks. No, I’m talking about a network of real people interacting with each other face to face. Studies show that volunteers want to develop friendships and share experiences through their work. They want to get better at their job to gain mastery of it. They need an open flow of communication with staff. And they want to be recognized. When these four needs are met, they form the core elements of a social network. Having the feeling of belonging to or having a role in a group supports loyalty and motivation in volunteers.
1. First component of a volunteer social network: Interaction between volunteers
Facebook encourages interactions through each member’s news feed. It tells you what your friends are up to, and makes it easy to comment on their posts and pictures. How can we apply this concept to volunteering?
One way is to use volunteers to both manage and recruit other volunteers . These methods had positive statistical correlations with benefits of the volunteer program and volunteer retention in studies by Jeffrey Brudney (the foremost research expert on volunteer management programs). If your volunteers work independently, take heed: one study interviewing volunteers for a bereavement program revealed that they felt isolated and were highly supportive of the idea of group meetings and activities. In their book Marketing Communications for Local Nonprofit Organizations, Wymer and Starnes explain that volunteers will be satisfied if they have the chance to:
- develop friendships,
- share experiences,
- communicate with others, and
- develop support groups.
Makes sense to me. I’d rather work with my friends than with people I barely know, wouldn’t you?
2. Second component of a volunteer social network: Volunteer school.
There’s a reason Facebook started out as a college thing–it’s easy to make friends in school. You have common interests (loosely based around the topic of the class), you form common experiences, and you’re a part of a unified group. By being together in classes, volunteers can have more of that interaction we talked about in component #1.
Of course, volunteer classes and training also have the benefit of producing better volunteers. Ongoing training and professional development for volunteers (as opposed to just an initial orientation) increases both effectiveness and retention. A national study sponsored by Public/Private Ventures concluded that “Orientation and training ensure that volunteers build the necessary skills and have realistic expectations of what they can accomplish.” Plus, it builds confidence. People like to do things they’re good at.
3. Third component of a volunteer social network: Interaction between volunteers and staff
It’s interesting that studies have conflicting evidence about the effect that managerial support of volunteers has on effectiveness and retention of the volunteers. On one hand, Brudney’s study in 1999 showed a positive correlation between the amount of time spent by staff managing volunteers and the benefits of the program. On the other hand, another study he did found a negative correlation between communication between staff and volunteers and retention. There’s a lot of things that could have influenced these seemingly contradicting findings, but I have a theory that it’s about the direction of the communication.
Sure, volunteers need direction. They need to know what they’re expected to do, and how they’re expected to do it. But it’s a two-way street- if you want to build relationships with them, you’ve got to listen. People like to help people they know (and like). How do you get to know someone? You listen to them. And people like those who listen to them.
4. Fourth component of a volunteer social network: Recognition
Ever wonder why people play Mafia Wars and FarmVille? One reason is that they get points. It’s the same thing with Foursquare, where you get points for logging in to a location. Sure, the points don’t really matter, but then again, they do.
People have more motivation to perform a role if they believe it’s valued. It’s interesting, though, that the same kind of recognition doesn’t work for every kind of role. Specifically, do you use your volunteers over the long-term for specialized tasks (like a board member)? Or do you use them episodically for very easy tasks (such as ushers)? Here’s what Brudney and Hager have to say about it:
“Long-term commitments are exemplified by training and professional development opportunities, regular communication and supervision, and liability coverage. These are precisely the kinds of practices more likely to be adopted by those charities that use volunteers in sustained ways, characterized by having relatively few volunteers who spend a lot of hours working for the charity. Charities that cater to episodic volunteers adopt different strategies, such as providing external validation through public recognition of volunteers.”
So, give your ushers and program stuffers a certain percent off their purchases of merchandise or classes. Publicly recognize your guilds. On the other hand, provide training and development opportunities for your board members. And at every turn, thank, thank, and thank them again.
So, to recap: to help your volunteers help you, build them a social network by:
- Encouraging interaction between volunteers,
- Providing classes and ongoing training,
- Listening and providing guidance to volunteers, and
- Recognizing your volunteers in an appropriate way.
What do you think—have these approaches worked for your volunteer program? What has been your experience with volunteers?