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People Don't Quit Volunteering Because they are Too Busy
They Quit Because ...

The Top Seven Reasons Volunteers Quit
By Thomas W. McKee

What is the number one reason people give for not volunteering? We have all heard it and probably used it ourselves. But is it the real reason?

The excuse: "I've just got too much on my plate. I've got to cut back."

There is a problem with this reason. It just isn't the truth. It is an excuse.

Let's look at the stats:

Those who don't volunteer

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 74.2% of the U.S. population did not volunteer last year. About 63.4 million people, or 26.8 percent of the population, volunteered through or for an organization at least once between September 2008 and September 2009.

Why do you think that three-quarters of the U.S. population did not volunteer last year? Most of them would probably say, "I'm just too busy to volunteer."

Those volunteers who quit

And how many volunteers have resigned in the past year for the same reason-I'm just too busy.

But is that the real reason? I don't think so.

When I hear people complain about how busy they are and in the same breath talk about all of the T.V. programs they watch (Lost, American Idol, Glee, the NBA playoffs, the World Cup, 24, etc.), I wonder just how busy they really are. In addition to T.V., according to Luis von Ahn, a researcher at Carnegie Melon University, humans spend nine billion hours playing solitaire every year. PC gamers spend an average of 18.5 hours per week playing games. That's a third of a work week. When I read these stats, I begin to question, "Are we really that busy?"

So I began to do my own research, and I confirmed my suspicions that busyness is not the real reason that volunteers don't volunteer. This year I will have logged over 30,000 airline miles plus driven up and down the coast of California working with volunteer organizations in the following states: Washington, Iowa, Alabama, California, Arkansas, Illinois, Texas, Louisiana, Colorado, South Carolina, Kansas and Georgia. In each place I often ask several questions to see what volunteer managers are facing.

  1. What are your volunteers doing that is creative and exciting?
  2. What changes are impacting your work with volunteers?
  3. What are the reasons that volunteer quit your organization?
It is not always easy to get an honest answer to this third question. The answers compare to an exit interview in corporate America where employees tend to hide the truth. Volunteers often give a lame excuse like, "I've just got too much on my plate right now, so I'm going to have to back out for a while." That statement could be called a euphemism for one of the top seven reasons that I have discovered from my interaction with volunteer leaders. Although they are anecdotal, here are the top seven reasons that people quit-according to my experience.

Number 7: No flexibility in volunteer opportunities or scheduling
Number 6: Too much wasted time in useless or unproductive meetings
Number 5: Lack of communication
Number 4: Lack of professionalism
Number 3: The feeling that the volunteer is not really making a difference
Number 2: No feedback from leadership about how the volunteer is doing

And the Number 1 reason: The volunteer leader who doesn't know how to lead

As you look at the list of 2-6-they all relate to the first one-which is the most important. The number one reason people quit is the same reason that most people quit their jobs-the unprofessional boss who doesn't know how to lead.

So what? What can we do about this?

Before you react to my answer-hear me out. When I mention the next words, some of you are going to be turned off because of a bad experience. Some are going to think that I'm crazy.

My answer? Volunteer managers need to work more like a Human Resources (HR) manager. Whenever I mention this in a workshop, eyes roll and people begin to tell me experiences of rule-driven, paper-pushing HR managers. I understand your concern. I have met some of these HR managers in my 20 years working as a leadership consultant in the private and public sector. But most of the HR people I have worked with are fantastic. Great HR directors are very intentional about how they recruit, train and lead paid and non-paid employees.

I recently was interviewed for an article about volunteerism in HR Magazine (The Society for Human Resource Management Magazine). One of the other persons interviewed for the article was Kevin Horan, vice president of HR at TechnoServe. As you read the following paragraph from the article, "Pave the Way for Volunteers" by Adrianne Fox, notice how Kevin treats both paid staff and non-paid staff (volunteers) professionally and his emphasis on training (I highlighted the training emphasis).

Kevin spends much of his time in the field on training (emphasis mine). The Washington, D.C.- based nongovernmental organization helps entrepreneurs build their businesses. Operating in more than 30 countries, the organization has 725 paid employees, including 40 in the United States and 45 expatriates. The remaining workforce is made up of local nationals. TechnoServe brings on about 125 volunteer consultants, called "volcons," each year for three-month assignments. When Horan conducts training in field offices, volunteer consultants and locals attend sessions together and are treated the same... "When I walk into a training session in Rwanda for communication skills training, they are so eager and excited to learn," Horan says... Volcons receive an orientation from the country director as well. "We also have an HR contact for each volcon in case problems arise," Horan says. "Sometimes, two weeks into an assignment in Tanzania and a 12-hour drive from civilization, the volcon starts wondering what the heck he just did. We have had rare occasions where we had to bring someone home early, but our recruitment process is usually thorough enough ("Pave the Way for Volunteers," Adrianne Fox, HR Magazine, June 2010).

In the article, Adrianne Fox quoted Susan Ellis, CEO of Energize, Inc; John L Lipp, CEO of PAWS (Pets are Wonderful Support; Christine Nardecchia, volunteer services administrator for the city of Dublin, Ohio; and Kate Gaffney, deputy director of talent management at New York University in New York City. Although each of us represented different roles in the volunteer leadership field, we all kept repeating the same theme: "Non-paid employees (volunteers) need to be treated professionally in the same way that managers lead, encourage, train and hold accountable their employees." (Try Googling "Pave the Way for Volunteers" if you want to see the article).

A confession Why I Quit

If I had been honest, I would not have said, "I've got too much on my plate right now." If I had told the truth, I would have said, "I'm too frustrated in my volunteer role because of the unprofessional, untrained, leadership we have on our team." But I didn't say that because, well, I'm just too nice-or am I?

But I am guilty of joining the ranks of the volunteer quitter. I can't believe I just wrote that, but I was a quitter. In my defense, I did finish my three-year commitment (and was an active volunteer in two other organizations), but when I was asked to be on the committee for another three years, I declined. The reason I quit? It wasn't because I was so busy (and I really was busy). It was because I was so frustrated with the meetings that took so long. The person who led the committee was a wonderful person, passionate about our mission, and a hard worker; however, that manager just couldn't lead meetings. A meeting that should have lasted about two-hours lasted four or five hours, and I would get home at midnight. Then I would complain to my wife another hour after I got home-not great for building a healthy marriage. When I was asked to continue, Susie answered for me, "No way." The sad thing is that I would love to have served on the committee and offer my expertise. But I didn't. I quit.

Thomas W. McKee

Tom McKee Tom McKee is president and owner of www.volunteerpower.com a leadership development firm specializing in volunteerism. He has over 40 years of experience in volunteer leadership. Tom began his speaking career to one of the most difficult audiences-high school assemblies. Since those days he has addressed over 1 million people spanning three continents-Africa, Europe and the U.S. Over the past 40 years he has trained over 100,000 leaders how to manage the chaos of change in an organization.

The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer Tom and his son Jonathan are authors of the book, The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer (Group Publishing). The New Breed details the new cultural shift in volunteer management and also includes valuable, applicable resources for leaders, including job descriptions, icebreakers, team-builders and community-building activities, equipping leaders to move forward with confidence and empower valuable volunteers.

About The New Breed:
The New Breed: Understanding and Equipping the 21st Century Volunteer by Jonathan McKee and Thomas W. McKee. Group Publishing. Paperback, 176 pages. ISBN: 978-0764435645. The book can be ordered at www.volunteerpower.com.