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If you’ve volunteered for the association you belong to, this may sound familiar: You feel excited to get involved as a volunteer to meet new people, give back to your field, and help shape the association’s future. At first, you can’t wait to get started. You are well prepared for committee meetings, ready to report out on what you’ve accomplished, and diligently cross off your to-do list. You provide timely replies and input, and remain active in tracking progress.

The next thing you know, that initial excitement starts wearing off. You put countless hours in, but you’re not sure anyone noticed. Work gets busy. Life happens. Priorities shift. All of that energy you had for volunteering with the association slowly wears off until you stop volunteering altogether.

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common volunteer experience. And more unfortunately, unmotivated, disengaged volunteers hinder an association’s ability to be successful.

Understanding why people volunteer, what makes them quit, and how to encourage and keep them motivated may mean the difference between a weak or strong volunteer base, and a weak or strong association.

Why Do Volunteers Volunteer?

Understanding what motivates people to become volunteers can help you keep them engaged for longer. Some common reasons people volunteer include:

  • To give back to their profession and a cause they believe in
  • They want to learn new skills and build their resumè or network
  • It gives them a sense of ownership and empowerment
  • They’re motivated by a desire for change
  • To meet people, have fun, and enjoy their professional life
  • They were asked to

Think about each of these motives and build your program around them. Be upfront about asking each of your prospective volunteers about their motives, so you can better match them with an assignment. One of the easiest ways to do this is to collect this information in a volunteer interest form, but you can also send out a survey or schedule time to make phone introductions when a new volunteer signs up. Volunteer interests and motivations change over time, too, so make sure to follow up on a regular basis to make adjustments and keep them engaged.

Why Do Volunteers Quit?

Now that we understand some of the reasons why volunteers want to volunteer in the first place, coming up with a list of reasons why they might quit is fairly simple.

  • They were underutilized
  • The board or committee culture atmosphere was impersonal, tense, or cliquish
  • They made a suggestion that was not acted on or responded to
  • They didn’t feel their contributions were valued or making an impact
  • Association staff or other volunteers treated them as an interruption, and not as welcome, anticipated help
  • The reality of their experience was not what they expected when they signed on
  • Their responsibilities grew and interrupted their work/life balance

Even the most engaged volunteers can get to this point if we are not intentional about creating a positive experience, providing clear expectations, and checking in along the way to ask how they are doing and if they are getting what they hoped for from the experience.

What Can We Do to Encourage Volunteers?

In reviewing the list above, many of the reasons why a volunteer might quit can be prevented from the start! Let’s dive into our top five tips for keeping volunteers encouraged, motivated, and engaged.

  1. Share a Volunteer Job Description

If you don’t have a job description for each of your committees and its volunteer roles, that is where you need to start! Be clear and transparent about the goals, expectations, and responsibilities of each committee so volunteers know what they are signing up for. This lowers the chances they will be surprised by the necessary and expected work later and need to abandon their role. Don’t forget to include details like the typical number of volunteer hours expected, frequency and timing of meetings, deadlines on any deliverables, reporting structure, term of service, and desired skills and experience.

  1. Give Volunteers the Training and Resources They Need

Nothing is more frustrating than being a willing volunteer and simply not having the tools, training, or resources to do the job. Be sure to offer an orientation to new volunteers. Take the time to introduce them to who they will be working with, share the goals, objectives, and the budget for their work, and set them up with the appropriate tools they will need to be successful. This might include training on how to use shared technology, how to access to relevant files and toolkits, and procedures like how to get reimbursed for expenses. Keep in mind that their success is your success, and providing them with training and resources up front will make your job and their job easier!

  1. Show Appreciation

You might be surprised how far a little appreciation can go in keeping volunteers encouraged and motivated, and yet this is one of the easiest things to overlook. Showing appreciation doesn’t have to be extravagant, but it should be sincere, personal, and delivered in a timely manner. Using the information you have on hand about why someone has volunteered in the first place can help you give more meaningful appreciation. For example, if you know someone has volunteered to build their resumé, you might offer to write them a letter of reference or LinkedIn recommendation.

Here are some ideas —

  • Send hand-written thank you notes that mention something specific to each volunteer’s contribution and how it has helped the association
  • Public recognition on your association website, in an email newsletter, on social media, or during an event
  • Plaques, certificates, or other awards at the end of their term of service
  • Gift cards (even just $5.00 is a kind gesture!)
  • Provide a letter of reference, or a LinkedIn recommendation
  • Association swag
  • Host a volunteer appreciation luncheon, or a virtual happy hour
  • Invite your key volunteers to participate in a bigger way! When you have someone exceptional on your volunteer team, you want to keep them. A personal invitation to take on a bigger role while expressing your gratitude and acknowledging a job well done is a huge compliment, and a big motivator to continue volunteering.

Saying “thanks” once is not enough. Surely, volunteers mean more to your association than that! To keep yourself on track, create a system that helps make sure regular thanks are being given throughout a volunteer’s experience with your association.

  1. Communicate and listen to their feedback

    A good volunteer experience includes the ability to stay in the loop, and to provide feedback. Make sure volunteers understand how what they are doing makes a positive impact on the association. Ask for their opinions, listen to their suggestions, and always follow-up. When a volunteer does decide to leave their position, ask them what they liked and didn’t like about their experience to give your association the chance to improve the experience for all volunteers.

  2. Empower People

When you sense that someone is losing their motivation, it might seem counterintuitive to relinquish some control – but that might be exactly what is needed! Try fighting your instincts to start taking over, and instead give volunteers more opportunities for input and ownership of decisions. Empowering volunteers engages them further, but feeling controlled will disengage them.

Another way to empower people is to connect them to others in the association to collaborate and make decisions more directly. Help them build relationships with others in the association so they continue to feel connected.

Successful leaders ignite and inspire, they don’t pressure. If you set up your volunteers for success from the start by understanding what motivates them, you can tap into their interests to get them going, and keep them going. You don’t have to pressure people to do what interests them.

Finally, put more in if you want more out. Volunteers are a gift to your association, and when you do the hard work up front to make it as easy as possible for volunteers to succeed well, you will be amazed by the energy and enthusiasm volunteers bring to your association.

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