How to Lose a Volunteer in 10 Days

Having worked in the non-profit sector for more than 5 years, I understand what a vital role volunteers play and I have seen first-hand the impact of both positive and negative volunteer experiences.

Yakko’s elementary school has provided the perfect case study on how to make sure your volunteers never return.  This has been my first year working with the PTO at the school and it will also be my last (until all three kids are in school).

I should have known from day one that there was a problem.  I joined the board because I have an event planning background and they were unable to find someone to organize their fall festival.  The event was at risk of being cancelled so I stepped up and said I would organize it.  Never in my wildest dreams did I think no one would bother to thank me for volunteering my time and effort after the event was completed.  With the school year over, the board is struggling with why over half of the positions are still unfilled (including President, Vice President, Fundraising and Event Planning).  I voiced my thoughts that the key areas of improvement for the PTO were communication and recognition. Unfortunately people didn’t think either was a problem.  After all, they host a volunteer recognition tea to thank volunteers.  Here’s my issue with the volunteer tea…volunteers weren’t invited.  The event flyer was sent to the entire school.  The message it sent me was “we know people helped, but we aren’t really sure who they were.  So to make sure we don’t miss anyone, we’ll invite everyone.”  Volunteer recognition isn’t something you can do at the last-minute.  There must be a conscious effort throughout the year to track and recognize individuals.  Although end of year banquets can be nice, there must also be an immediate recognition after the volunteer has contributed. A hand-written thank you card within 10 days of the event is always a good idea.  But it also requires some pre-planning to ensure you have the names and addresses of everyone who has volunteered.

Individuals are motivated to volunteer for one of three main reasons:  achievement, affiliation or power.  Achievement motivated people are those who are both goal and task oriented.  They see problems as challenges, stay with tasks through completion and need tangible rewards.  Affiliation motivated individuals need personal interaction. They need to be liked and listened to and enjoy being involved in group projects.  A reception is a very good way to recognize these individuals.  Since some people are embarrassed by individual recognition, recognizing the efforts of the entire group together can be effective.  Power motivated individuals are those who need to impact and influence others. They are able to respond to identified needs, are attentive to the goals of the organization, and will seek positions of authority and responsibility.  Recognize these individuals with positions of greater responsibility.  A successful organization needs to keep and grow all three types of volunteers to fulfill its mission.

To truly be effective in volunteer recognition, you have to look at each volunteer individually and recognize them in a way that’s meaningful to them.  Until that piece of the puzzle is in place, you’ll continue to overwork the volunteers who continue to help and have a hard time finding repeat volunteers.


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