One-on-time time with volunteers can help the volunteer and organization

Volunteers unplugged

How much time do you spend with volunteers “unplugged”?

One of the most common questions in the various online groups and forums I belong to is, “What’s the best volunteer management system?”

Don’t get me wrong, VMSs are amazing tools for helping streamline and organize a volunteer program and they can free up a remarkable amount of time. They and other technological tools and platforms have become arguably a necessity in our sector.

Unfortunately, a common result of our dependance on this technology is a lessening of focus on the actual human relationships between volunteers and leaders of volunteers.

I think it’s time to refocus on spending unplugged time with volunteers

I’m not saying you should get rid of your technological tools. You need them. Just don’t assume they take the place of real, personal relationships with volunteers. The relationships you build are vital. They are the linchpin of successful volunteer programs.

The need for personal relationships is even more vital with remote volunteers, who may not have any direct contact with staff or other volunteers unless the leader makes an effort to reach out. Despite the physical distance, leaders must find ways to create real connections. There are a number of reasons why:

You learn more about the volunteers

Direct contact allows leaders to understand the unique strengths, skills and motivations of each volunteer. Yes, much of that information can be uploaded into the volunteer’s online profile, but it’s in friendly, one-on-one chats that you discover skills or abilities they never thought were useful. For example, a volunteer probably wouldn’t put on their profile that their hobby is watercolour painting. Yet, (it helps) if you just happen to be looking for someone to create a special poster for an event. It’s only when we have a true relationship with a volunteer that this information comes out.

High volunteer turnover can often be traced directly to a lack of personal contact

The greater the percentage of contact a volunteer has with a computer program compared to a person, the easier it is for them to walk away. If 90% of your emails to a volunteer are automated, the volunteer won’t have the emotional connection to the organization that leads to retention. And believe me, no matter how carefully you craft an email, and even if their name is inserted at the top, they can tell the difference. Time spent with volunteers unplugged fosters a sense of belonging. If you can become friendly with a volunteer, it overcomes the transactional nature of task assignment and supervision, instead creating bonds based on liking and shared purpose.

A good relationship can provide advance warning of issues

When volunteers are comfortable with you, they are more likely to share information about conflicts they see brewing or problems that may be in the initial stages. The more advance notice you receive about this kind of challenge, the easier it is for you to address those issues before they escalate. Years ago, I had a volunteer take me aside to tell me one of the people I supervised was starting to harass another volunteer because she wouldn’t go on a date with him. He had always been very respectful when I was around, so I would likely never have found out if the volunteer hadn’t felt safe enough with me to speak out. One or both of the volunteers would have just quit. Because I learned about it early, I was able to deal with it capably and tactfully. Both volunteers stayed for as long as I was with the organization.

Volunteers who feel a sense of community are more likely to become advocates

Their positive experiences and stories shared with friends, family, and social networks can become powerful recruitment tools, bringing in new volunteers and supporters. You, as the leader, are the one most instrumental in fostering that sense of community. And the only really effective way to do that is to spend unplugged time with the volunteers in your program.

Spending time with your volunteers unplugged can add to your workload

I realize, especially for those of us whose role as leader of volunteers is only part of our duties, the time required to build all these relationships can seem overwhelming. It is, however, one of those things that takes time up front but saves time in the long run—fewer problems, less recruiting, less paperwork when volunteers leave.

These are just some of the ways that personal contact can save you time.

So use all the technological tools at your disposal to help streamline your processes and make your work easier. Then use the time they've saved you chatting with volunteers…unplugged.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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