Don’t Hoard Volunteers!

hoard volunteers

Does your organization hoard volunteers? I had a conversation this week with Mushka from the volunteer management software Volunteero. Among (many!) other things, we chatted about volunteer passports, and the importance of putting our focus on retaining volunteers as volunteers, rather than just retaining them for our own organizations.

There’s a scarcity mindset in the sector around volunteers.

Many organizations to try to “hoard” volunteers. If they find an amazing volunteer but don’t have a role that would really match their skills and interests, they try to fit them into a role that “kinda-sorta” matches rather than helping them find a place in another organization where they can really thrive.

We’re so worried about “losing” volunteers, that we are willing to put them into roles where they might be unhappy or unfulfilled. What happens then? The person may decide that volunteering isn’t all that much fun. That they’re not getting anything out of it. And then?

They.  Quit.  Volunteering.  Altogether!

Talk about a lose-lose situation!

We need to stop trying to hoard volunteers if we want to increase their overall numbers.

I’ve written in the past about volunteer passports, so I won’t go over that here. My focus today is on not driving volunteers out of the sector altogether. And let’s face it, the more we hoard volunteers the more desperate we look – and desperation never sells!

Instead of trying to hold onto volunteers at any cost, we need to encourage them to seek out opportunities that align with their passions and skills, regardless of whether those opportunities are within our particular organization, in another one, or across multiple ones. That is how we keep them in the volunteering world!

I once spoke with a volunteer named John. He joined a large organization that rescued animals because he thought he would get a chance to learn how to become a dog trainer. Unfortunately, the organization had a rule that only professional staff could do training. However, they didn’t want to let such a motivated, reliable volunteer go, so they gave him a role as a dog walker, where he could help dogs practice basic obedience. It was okay, but not really what he was wanting. When I spoke with him, he was frustrated, and had decided to pay for some courses and stop volunteering altogether.

One volunteer lost to the sector.

What if that organization had looked around and found a small, local humane centre that would have welcomed his interest, been willing to teach him and gave him the chance he was looking for? His volunteer experience would have been far more satisfying, and he might still have been volunteering to this day.

“Giving away” volunteers can seem scary.

It requires trust. Trust that organizations that you send a volunteer to will reciprocate. Trust that you will gain over the long term. It takes a collaborative approach among organizations. Rather than viewing volunteers as exclusive to our own organizations, we collaborate and share talent when it aligns with the volunteer’s journey. This not only allows volunteers to thrive but also nurtures a sense of community and shared interest amongst different organizations.

There’s a third benefit.

If we’re willing to share volunteers, we will also start sharing best practices. A volunteer who moves easily between organizations will share the things they experienced that worked at one organization with the other organizations they go to. In that way, all the organizations benefit.

Moving from contemplating scarcity to celebrating abundance isn’t the only mindset we need to change.

We need to start measuring the value of our programs less by the number of volunteers we have and more by the quality of the experience we offer volunteers, and the impact they make. Remember, a satisfied volunteer in a fulfilling role is likely to have a greater impact than someone “shoehorned” into a role that they don’t particularly enjoy.

We need to make sure that volunteers aren’t just completing tasks; they are actively shaping their own experiences, growing as individuals and contributing meaningfully to the causes that they care about.

When that happens, they’re far more likely to talk to their friends and family about the joys of volunteering!

We need to break free from the concept of retention for the sake of retention.

Instead, focus on nurturing an ecosystem embracing a wide range of organizations where volunteers can find the perfect fit for their skills and passions. By encouraging volunteers to explore experiences across different organizations, we create a win-win situation – volunteers find fulfillment, and organizations find volunteers who truly match our needs.

When you hoard volunteers, everyone loses.

The next time you find an amazing volunteer whose skills and interests don’t align perfectly with your organization, help them find an organization that’s perfect for them. By keeping volunteers happy, whether in our organization or another one, we strengthen and grow the overall pool, and we’ll have even less reason to hoard volunteers.

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