Slowing the Volunteer Merry-Go-Round

volunteer merry-go-round

Is your organization dealing with a volunteer merry-go-round?

When I was small, a group of us kids would go to the local park, pile onto the merry-go-round, and someone would spin us faster and faster and faster … and faster! Until we all started to lose our grip and we went flying off. This was called fun!

It’s not so fun when the merry-go-round is your organization, and the ones flying off are volunteers.

I often have organizations tell me that they need more volunteers, even though they have a regular influx of new people. It seems hard for organizations to see – or maybe admit – that they don’t need more volunteers; they need to take care of the ones they have.

I think it’s because leaders know what to do to bring in new volunteers, even if it’s hard. Many people, though, don’t know how to fix the challenges, even if they know what they are. So they keep throwing people onto their spinning volunteer merry-go-round and hoping they’ll hang on.

So how do you fix the challenges?

Obviously, the specifics depend on what the challenge is, but there are some universal principles that you can apply.

First, practice creative thinking.

With the constant changes in the world today, the go-to solutions that have always worked in the past are not as effective as they once were. Things that were “best practices” even four years ago, simply don’t work anymore. New challenges require new solutions, and that means creative thinking.

And if you’re not “creative”? Don’t worry about it. We are all creative, though most of us have been trained out of using our creativity. With practice you can get it back. There are a few games you can play that will help. One is to spend time thinking about a really silly idea. For example, all houses need to be built underground. List every problem having underground houses would cause (ie: hard for people with mobility challenges). Then list every benefit of the idea (more green space and gardens). Practicing this game can teach your mind to find creative uses for just about anything.

Another game is to take a few random words (say “butterfly” and “water”) and find one or more themes that connect them (both change while remaining the same entity – caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly; ice, water, steam). The more words you choose, the harder it gets! Drawing connections between disparate things can really get your creative juices flowing.

There are dozens of similar games throughout the internet.

Second, act on or advocate for necessary change.

Once you have come up with a solution, you have to be willing to take the necessary actions to implement it. This can be harder than it sounds. Whenever a program has done things a particular way for a long time there can be a lot of pushback back from volunteers, staff and even clients when a change is proposed. You need very clear and specific reasons for wanting the change, and be able to articulate that in such a way that everyone can see the benefits. Don’t give everyone all your reasons, necessarily. That can actually back-fire on you. (Check out Niro Sivanathan’s TED talk: “The counter-intuitive way to be more persuasive”.) But do have them listed so that if someone pushes back in a particular area, you can respond appropriately.

Listing the reasons can also help convince you! Let’s face it, we all have things that we know we should do, but we avoid (I’m terrible at flossing my teeth regularly!). By preparing to convince others we can often convince ourselves.

Finally, be willing to make unpopular decisions.

In September of 2021, the Chicago Art Institute disbanded its docent program, “firing” all sixty of its volunteer docents. The reason was that the Institute wanted to live up to its value of diversity and inclusion, and the program was almost exclusively filled with retired white women. The decision caused an incredible backlash, the Institute even receiving hate letters and threats. But the decision was the right one, and even the majority of docents themselves supported it.

It can be incredibly hard to follow through on decisions that you know are going to be unpopular. The Chicago Art Institute is an extreme example, but the theory is the same. Just remember the benefits that will come, and be prepared to face the criticism. It will be worth it in the long run.

Think creatively, take actions, and be willing to make unpopular decisions.

These are the steps to slowing down your volunteer merry-go-round, and making it easier for people to stick with you.

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