It's not about the rewards

Several years ago, I was in a class where the topic of how difficult it was to motivate volunteers was to be discussed.

The question posed was, “how can we motivate volunteers and keep them around?”

One person immediately chimed-in saying, “you have to reward them.”

The rest of the class including the lecturer seemed to agree and we went through a typical list of rewards as a starting point to the discussion.

Free food was the first idea.

Certificates of appreciation came next.

Volunteer awards with plaques and trophies one person added.

An offer of a reference letter would surely entice anyone.

Gift baskets and gift cards, tickets to shows and events.

Formal praise at large gatherings, handwritten thank-you notes and on and on.

In my perspective, all these ideas make sense and not bad, yet will these really contribute to what motivates volunteers and what keeps them around?

Motivating anyone is challenging, be it an employee, a person in leadership and perhaps especially volunteers.

In all these cases, someone who is self-motivated would be ideal, yet that does not always happen.

Returning to the question, “how can we motivate volunteers and keep them around?”

From my experience having been a volunteer and overseeing volunteers, one approach would be to organize the opportunity like an actual job.

And, in doing so, we can look at some facets that are lacking in a lot of paid jobs and ensure we don’t do the same with volunteer positions.

For example, I have come across a lack of clear roles and responsibilities in almost every organization I have interacted with.

This tends to lead towards role ambiguity, causes stress, conflict and can actually act to demotivate people.

So, imagine you are brought-in as a volunteer and have no clue as to what your role is, or if you are just thrown-in to a workflow, would that act to demotivate you?

In my younger days, this happened to me on a few occasions, and I have to admit, I did not stick around.

I found it frustrating and made my interactions with some of the paid employees very awkward.

This leads me to another point, leadership.

Like with a job, an employee will have someone they report to and can rely on for support. Ideally, this leader is comfortable with this and chose this role and has the tools and training to lead.

On this topic, I have experienced both sides, I have volunteered with no clear direct one-up supervisor and even had a supervisor who did not want this responsibility.

Once again, in both cases, I did not stick around.”

On the flip side, I was also once forced to oversee volunteers and it was a very challenging experience as I did not have the tools and training to do this well.

In retrospect, this was not equitable for me nor the volunteer.

Returning to the question, “how can we motivate volunteers and keep them around?”

One idea might be to approach it as you would any recruitment portfolio.

Here are some high-level ideas.

Define the volunteer opportunity as you would a job description factoring also what this opportunity might bring for the candidate “here is what this opportunity will offer you.”

Create a volunteer candidate profile of what qualities you are looking for.

Conduct an interview to not just take anyone who is available, yet someone who actually wants to do this work i.e., someone who might be self-motivated.

Define goals, objectives, clear expectations, outputs, and outcomes if possible.

Have at least verbal agreements for requirements and commitments between the volunteer and their supervisor.

Ideally, the supervisor is on-board with the initiative.

Have clear parameters of a start date and time and place or if remote work is possible and maybe the opportunity will be results based.

On-board and train the volunteer as if they were a staff.

Have regular check-ins and feedback sessions and even pull feedback from the volunteer before the end of the engagement.

This is one element I believe is sometimes overlooked. Feedback from volunteers can be invaluable.

A volunteer might be less concerned giving constructive feedback compared to an employee who might fear consequences.

Given the framework above, imagine you engaged a volunteer with no work experience, you will have essentially given them training as what to expect when they enter the workforce.

Needless to say, praise and recognition are required along the way, the more specific, the better. Get to understand what each individual wants. Not everyone wants public recognition.

Lastly, it may not be a bad idea to have a fixed-term engagement with an end-date.

If the experience has great results for both sides, it may organically evolve to something more long-term.

There is nothing more motivating than great results and success for all towards a worthy endeavor.

And, if want, give some food, maybe buy their transit pass, handwritten notes are always nice, an offer of a reference would also be appreciated, I am sure.