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Volunteer Power!

Volunteer Power News — Number 14
Author: Thomas W. McKee
"Volunteer Power News" Monthly Newsletter

© 2004 Advantage Point Systems Publishing

A warm welcome to all volunteer managers - those of you who recruit, motivate and mobilize volunteer workers.

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This Issue:

  • Volunteers Aren't Free
  • Ask Tom - Why did my volunteers revolt? Peter--Bristol, England


Volunteers Aren't Free

What have you put in your budget for volunteers? I recommend that you put at least 10% of your annual budget go to the rewards and recognition of your volunteers.

What is the difference between a reward and recognition?

Recognition: Recognize a person for the job they were recruited to do. I volunteered to arrange the meetings for the last year and I did my job. I am recognized for doing this job.

Reward: Recognize a person for going far above what was asked. Mary volunteered to arrange the meetings for the last year and planned ten outstanding programs. Our attendance doubled because Mary arranged outstanding programs. She had us go to the Zoo with our families and friends. We had fantastic speakers who donated their time. She did it all under budget and with a growing membership, the organization increased its income. Mary is rewarded for doing much more than we expected and when she was given the reward, all of the membership gave her a standing ovation. No one questions the value of the reward. The president of our organization called Mary and her husband up at her last meeting and gave her an engraved plaque for her office and two tickets to "Phantom of the Opera."

The following are some recognition and reward programs that organizations have found effective:

Offer Special Privileges and Perks

The California State Railroad Museum has developed an excellent volunteer program with many perks and privileges. When you work your way up the ranks of the volunteer chain, the ultimate is being able to drive the train. How's that for a perk?

They also offer other perks like free parking (something that is a high premium in Sacramento), access to management to share ideas, continuing education lectures on trains and the history of trains, workshops and trips. The volunteers attend a monthly all-hands meeting and are involved in long range planning.

And guess what, the California State Road Museum, budgets 10% of resources to managing volunteers.

Of course all volunteers can deduct mileage and other expenses such as costumes when they file their taxes.

Send Volunteers to Conferences

One of the mistakes we can make is to announce a training program for our volunteers. Many people who volunteer feel that they know how to do their job. People who lead effective businesses often think that they are well trained to lead a volunteer team. However, managing a volunteer team is very different than managing employees.

One way to solve this problem is to put money in your budget to send your leaders to conferences. Most conferences are at resort towns and offer a get away. They are filled with activities and helpful seminars for the volunteer leaders. People leave pumped and filled with ideas. Most of all they network with other volunteers just like them who are struggling with some of the same issues. They exchange ideas.

These conferences offer two benefits: training and motivation.

The American Society of Association Executives and the state chapters offer continual training. As a regular trainer for these conferences, I see volunteer board members who are challenged and encouraged as we work together. The California Travel Parks Association sends it's President to the CalSAE (California Society of Association Executives) training sessions. I talked with their president after attending one of these sessions and he was pumped.

Provide On-the-job Vocational Training

Although many women work outside the home, we must not neglect a wonderful untapped resource--the stay-at-home mom whose children are off to school and who has time on her hands. Many are getting ready to see their children go off to college and they need to update their work skills. I remember working for an organization in which we were able to recruit 20 women to volunteer four hours a week to work in our office. We had the latest computer equipment (this was 1984 and the P.C. was becoming popular). We trained these women to use the newest software and they would work for us. We would send them to classes and train them on the job. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that 4 x 20 = 80 hour of work a week. That is two full-time employees. It was enough money to purchase the latest office equipment. Each woman would commit for one year. Actually, most of the women worked for three or four years because they loved volunteering in our office.

Most of these women were able to update their resumes and find part-time and full-time jobs as their children went off to college. Talk about a win/win.

Be Available to Volunteers

Sometimes the cost is not money, but time. "The volunteers just want to visit and I've got so much work to do." I hear this one all the time from the paid staff of an organization-whether it's the Girl Scouts, hospital staff, or local churches. Volunteers expect to spend time visiting with the paid staff. And often the paid staff will get frustrated with the interruptions.

There was one draw back to our 20 office volunteers. Each time they came in, many of them wanted to spend time visiting with our staff. One of the perks, they felt, was special time with our staff to find out what was going on in the organization. At first I resented this, but soon realized that we needed to spend time with them.

What we began to do was to invite them to our coffee times during breaks and spend time interacting with them, asking them about their families, and then as we walked with them back to their work stations we would take a few minutes (usually not more than about 90 seconds) to comment on their work and how much we appreciated it. We made a point of being very specific by saying, "Connie, thanks so much for that report you prepared for me last week. I was able to use the information you provided to write this article for our national publication and the article will be coming out next month. I'll be sure you get a copy." When the article was published, we sent Connie a copy with a handwritten message across the top of the page saying, "I couldn't have written this without your help."

Provide Free Food

What is it about food that is a motivator? This is true in the workplace as well with volunteers. One summer I was leading management workshops in five locations of a government agency. Headquarters was concerned about the lack of motivation in the five offices. And their concerns were founded. But what I found, and I spent about three days in each branch office, was that four of the places were dead and one was alive. The difference-food!

In one office they had decided that each of the 30 employees would bring in bagels, donuts and/or home baked goodies each Wednesday morning. That means that each employee would have his or her responsibility for 29 other employees only every 35 weeks (when you count holidays). Out of 52 weeks a year, that isn't bad. On Wednesday morning the employees were in the break room laughing, sharing stories and enjoying a wonderful time of fellowship. What I call the "opening exercises" of work-happens everyday in every workplace when people are getting ready to start work, took a little bit longer on Wednesday. However, the pay off was great.

I mentioned this to the other offices and got resistance. People made all kinds of jokes about "that party office." In reality the "party office" was the top producing office. I wonder why.

What is true for the paid staff is even more important for our volunteers. Offering free snacks for our volunteers will go a long way in motivating and encouraging volunteers. Bringing bagels, donuts and fruit to a volunteer meeting, or refreshments to a long evening meeting is a winner. I belong to a monthly volunteer committee that meets once a month at 5:30 p.m. We all leave our places of work and have either Pizza or Sub sandwiches waiting for us when we arrive.

One event that my wife Susie and I did for our 20 office volunteers was to put on a special Christmas luncheon at our home every year. We put the money for that luncheon for our volunteer budget and our office staff would prepare the luncheon and serve the lunch. It was a special time and we always had 100% turn out.

Have Fun

Fun is the great motivator. Volunteer work can be stressful. And fun is one of the most effective stress busters. Groups that play ball together, golf together, take a hike together, or even just have pizza together (food again), stay together.

There is a danger to leading in leaders who are passionate about their cause. Leaders, who are passionate about their cause, often forget to laugh. We become so serious about our causes and our mission that we forget to have fun. Tom Peters says, "The number one premise of business is that it need not be boring or dull. It ought to be fun. If it's not fun, you're wasting your life."

John F. Kennedy said, "There are three thing which are real: God, human folly and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension. So we must do what we can with the third."

Where and how can you have fun when you have so much work to do? We found that our employee lounge was a great stress buster. We would laugh and share time with our volunteers before we returned to our offices. Some employees hate to give up their employee's lounge to volunteers. They feel they need the lounge to themselves.

Other rewards and recognition and rewards that are effective are . . .

  • Five year, ten year, fifteen-year pins/plaques (Shriner's Hospital uses this reward with great results)
  • Outstanding volunteer reward in each department
  • Published results in newsletter and local newspaper
  • Lending library (Museums find this effective)
  • Special conventions for training (at resort places)

Ask Tom - Why did our volunteers revolt? Peter from England



I've been in my post as a church children's pastor for 3 years. I have a team of half-a-dozen good quality volunteers - most of who have been involved since before I arrived.

Over the summer, the youth worker and myself decided we needed to introduce a bit more robustness into our staff procedures. Up 'til now everything had run on goodwill & mutual kindness. However the work was starting to plateau and there were murmurings of frustration as it transpired everyone had different ideas of what we expected from them and what they expected from us.

The youth worker and myself spent some considerable time drawing up some pretty positive proposals that would give our volunteers all sorts of benefits (weekly emails, free drop-in for food and chat, a generous training budget to spend as they saw fit, regualr 'team-time' events, and termly one-to-one appraisals). In return we asked them to sign up to one of two pretty standard commitment form which we more or less copied from a reputable website but personalised to our situation!! Those volunteers who were willing to commit to the highest level received some of the more costly benefits

We saw this as really positive. A chance to renew & formalise our commitments. A chance to eliminate frustrations due to differing expectations and a chance to prove their worth to us by investing time & money into them. Only problem is now we have a revolt on our hands!! "We're just volunteers, we shouldn't have to sign anything", "We've been doing this for years why do we need to sign now", "I'm accountable to God. We don't need things in writing", "This is a slur to our commitment" etc etc. I'm sure you get the picture.

What do I do?

Peter Shields
(Cambridge, England)

Hi Peter:

It is always hard to make changes to an existing team--much easier to recruit from scratch.

A principal for managing change is "the team that owns the solution will make the change." The problem in what you describe is in your statement "The youth worker and myself spent some considerable time drawing up some pretty positive proposals . . ." The proposals came from you, not them. They have no ownership of the proposals. Don't give your volunteer team solutions. Instead give them the problem and let them brainstorm a solution. I have found that when they brainstorm and begin to say, "what we need here is some commitment, and I think we need to all sign a commitment form," they will all sign it because it came from them--not you. And then they own it.

I would suggest that you let it go for about six months. Go back to the old way and say nothing--just keep affirming their hard work. Then have a volunteer retreat or planning day where you let them do a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). See what they think their weaknesses are and strengths. I use the sheet on our resources page and have each one fill it out before the retreat. Then type it up and hand it out for everyone to discuss.

Out of the weaknesses, brainstorm how you can strengthen your ministry.

I hope this helps.


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Thomas W. McKee
Volunteer Power

Tom McKee is a leading volunteer management speaker, trainer and consultant. You can reach Tom at (916) 987-0359 or e-mail him at tom@advantagepoint.com

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