If you have ever had the issue that you don’t get enough volunteers and that the volunteers you DO get are either not passionate enough, engaged enough, or don’t return to volunteer with you again, read on for how you can turn your current and future volunteers into Volunteer Champions.

The Preconceptions

Volunteers are amazing. Or at least they should be. Or at least they could be! That is as much a fact as the screen you are reading this on. And it’s a fair bet you know this already because you are here, unless you are just very bored, in which case kudos to you for your decision to educate yourself in your free time! Anyhow, this fact about volunteers is completely obvious but completely worth mentioning because it is a fact that impacts everything that will be said in this article going forward.

The first, or rather, second thing to get out of the way is that you absolutely cannot, I repeat, cannot dictate the inherent attitudes and beliefs that your volunteers have. Any manager, of volunteers or otherwise, will know well the painful lessons learned regarding this aspect of management. All of your resources, from your Leadership Team, to your staff, to your volunteers - both Board-level and otherwise - are entities unto themselves. But though have their own inherent motivations, if you have decided to onboard this person, either as a staff or volunteer, you have a belief that this person can create value for you, your mission, and your goal. So if you have, hopefully willingly, chosen this person to work with and rely on, the question then is how you can effectively (and easily) bring out the most passion and dedication humanly possible from them.

The Question

Let’s start with the key question that you should ask (and you have asked this…right?) of each volunteer that joins your organization. Oh and yes, I do mean each volunteer for this to be really and truly effective. It is the question of why. But first, some clarification of what type of “why”. It is almost a certainty that you have asked the general “Why do you want to join our organization?”, or something similar. Does that sound familiar? The odd part is that most of us ask that question without ever really asking the real “why”. The critical “why”. We expect a good, standard, functional response due to our general and fair, if not wise, perception of volunteers as “temporary staff” who can do functional activities. Full stop. They are there to provide a free service and we are wholly and entirely grateful to them for that!….Perhaps you are already starting to see the issue here. Let’s put this another way: how many staff members do you know are so highly passionate about their jobs that they would do exactly what they are doing now for free? Try it: tell your staff that your organization is going “in a different direction” and that their wages will be withheld until further notice. Then measure how long those staff stick around.

Let’s be absolutely clear: volunteers are not, I repeat, are not temporary staff (i.e. free contractors). You must change this perception within you and your team before you can make any progress whatsoever. This is the first purpose of this article. If you are able and willing to change this perception, continue reading. If not, then good luck and enjoy reading a different article.

Still here? Good! Let’s keep going.

The Reality

Volunteers are people who are freely providing their time. There’s another word used for people providing you resources for free: donors. Let’s understand this from a measurable, cash-based, perspective. After all, if you can’t truly measure the value of a volunteer, then they really are only temporary free staff and nothing else.

The average of all statistically measured values of volunteer service, in U.S. dollars, comes to around $21.50 per hour. Yes, per hour. I use USD here because that’s where most of the statistical analysis has been completed but, to put it into terms that you can apply to your own currency, that is roughly 200-300% times the legal minimum wage in the U.S.A., so apply that same ratio to your own currency to make this relevant. Anyhow, $21.50 per hour comes to approximately $170 per 8 hours of service. Or $860 per 40 hours. How many times have you gotten a donation of $860 in one week from a single donor? Keep in mind that this is the value of a single volunteer for a single week. If you have 10 volunteers for that week, this now becomes $8,600. For a month, it is $34,400. I mean I could keep going, and secretly really want to because I always get awe-inspired when I get down to the numbers, but I think the point has been made abundantly clear.

The clear conclusion of this numbers-based analysis is that volunteers should only ever be treated as donors. And high-value donors at that.

Has your perspective shifted yet?

The Rationale

So now that you know that every week of volunteer service you lose costs you roughly $860 in donations, how hard are you willing to work to keep those volunteers engaged, passionate, and coming back time and again? Pretty hard, I’d bet. And, to be clear, the “engaged and passionate” part of that statement is every bit as important as the “coming back” part, for reasons we’ll get into. So this then brings us way back to the main point of this article: the invaluable (or, in fact, the actually quite measurably valuable) question of why.

Your “Why” must shift from how the volunteer can provide you with benefits to how you can provide the volunteer with benefits. Beyond the obvious marketing excellence you will need to actually engage more volunteers in the ways they prefer to be engaged (which is a whole other article you can read through), you need to understand what motivates the volunteers to genuinely look forward to working with you towards your goals.

The Answer

The key to this - drumroll please - is Science! Yes, science. Don’t leave yet! The science I am referring to here is Psychological science. And no, it isn’t nearly as boring as it may sound. Understanding the psychology of a volunteer is a supremely valuable exercise and will provide you with vast monetary benefits, not just because the volunteers will be even more motivated to freely donate their time, but also because you are over two times more likely to get actual cash donations from your volunteers as well.

So can you guess what the psychological drive of volunteers is? Take a guess. You likely already know it, though may not realize it. The psychological drive that motivates a volunteer is, almost always, community building. Almost every single one of the volunteers we talked to, onboarded into our organizations and projects, and worked beside have stated that they were primarily motivated by a desire to join a community. From simply meeting new people, to being new in town and wanting to make friends, to believing wholeheartedly in the mission of the organization and wanting to join in a unified effort to achieve that mission’s goals, the motivation, time and again, has been community.

And this is where most organizations fail in their volunteerism.

The Reckoning

It should be pretty rational that if you look at a volunteer as merely a functional resource providing a temporary free service, then you aren’t entirely motivated in the emotional well-being, growth, and support of that volunteer. So most volunteers are onboarded, assigned a duty or set of duties, and then told who to report to when they perform their duties. That’s the military way, not the volunteerism way.

Not once in that entire sequence of events is community building prioritized. Meaning that not once is the volunteer’s main, if not only, reason for volunteering being fulfilled. So unless you are providing the volunteers with additional cash-measurable benefits (i.e. a film-festival allowing free access to movies, or a performing arts venue allowing free access to the venue’s events), your likelihood of growing and keeping passionate and dedicated volunteers is slim to none. And even if you do provide those cash-measurable benefits, you will likely lose volunteers during the course of their duties because their goal was, altogether fairily, not entirely altruistic. So they either get what they wanted and see no further need to volunteer, or the offered benefits are not what they were expecting or adequate after all.

If your interaction with volunteers is completely transactional it should come as no surprise that the volunteers also share this perception, no matter how many smiles and good-natured Volunteer Orientations you set up for them.

The Change

I imagine that the theme of this article is abundantly clear by now: facilitating community building with your volunteers and, even more importantly, amongst your volunteers.

Let’s talk about some specific actions and activities that you can do that will not be too labour intensive on your part but will yield maximum benefit from, and more importantly for, your volunteers.

The Cliffhanger

But, just as in any good television show, this seems like as good a place as any for a cliffhanger until Part Two of the article. Hopefully you have gained some insight already into how valuable volunteers are from a completely measurable perspective, what their main motivations are in volunteering, and why you should care to address those motivations to foster passion and dedication, and to keep them coming back. Next time we will go over what actions you can do at every step of the volunteerism process to maximize benefits. Until then, happy volunteering!