Volunteer Buy-in Without the Burnout!

By Lianne Picot, Executive Director, Volunteer Toronto

Getting people to volunteer is pretty easy. Keeping them interested while not burning them out is often the most challenging part of the volunteer engagement process.

This can be particularly true for associations who rely on people power to keep things moving at all levels. Association executives also face significant challenges during times of growth and transition when the roles of staff and volunteers become blurred and it can seem like no one is happy. This can result in high volunteer attrition and uncertain and overwhelmed new staff members.

How can association executive directors balance the need to involve with the necessity to evolve? There are several key steps that will help the transition start and stay on the right track while maintaining enthusiasm for the association.

Involve Volunteers in the Transition

If your association is transitioning from volunteer-led to having employees, it is important to keep your volunteers up-to-date and involved throughout the process. Be clear about the reasons for the changes and invite them to be part of the solution early on. This will encourage long-term buy-in as well as transitional support when things get a little messy. Volunteers can take part in the design of the position or be involved in the interviewing process. Well managed, this process could be a way of reengaging volunteers while ensuring great support for new staff.

Provide Clarity of Roles

One of the most important areas of transitioning and maintaining effective long-term relationships with volunteers is role definition. This is important at board level and with volunteers one wants to retain to help carry out the work of the association.

The board of directors is likely to be very operational until a paid staff position is introduced. Moving from an operational board to one that is prepared to stand back and govern is one of the hardest transitions to make in our sector. However, there is a great deal of support out there to help manage the transition. There are experienced, trained consultants and agencies that specialize in board governance and transitioning. This is an extremely worthwhile investment as a third party brings an objective standpoint and a governance lens that will be of significant benefit for the changing board and the new association executive. Part of the work of a third party is to help the organization establish clear roles for the board of directors while creating a better understanding of the association executive’s role in supporting the board and running the organization.

It is also crucial to be very clear about roles when involving volunteers in committees or other work of the association. If volunteers have previously been part of all the work of the association, they can feel left out when paid staff start taking on previously held volunteer duties. A key way to avoid this is not allocating all of the menial tasks that staff is not interested in to the volunteers. Staff will often gravitate toward basic administrative tasks in the development of roles as these tasks are easiest to manage and need to be done. It is much better if the leadership sets up a volunteer engagement structure from the beginning that enables volunteers to continue to have crucial and interesting roles rather than leave it to staff to delegate on a daily basis. Clarity for staff around how volunteers are to be supported and involved is also very important as it sets a tone of expectation that will help prevent and/or provide a framework for dealing with conflict.

Get Creative

Staff burn out from boredom or having too much to do. Volunteers are no different. It is crucial that associations review their volunteer opportunities on an ongoing basis to ensure that they are meaningful, interesting and flexible. We can spend a great deal of time complaining about volunteers and their commitment. But the real question has to be whether we are giving them a reason to turn up. To avoid burnout, there must also be a continual influx of volunteers. But have a range of possibilities been created? Or, are we stuck on our one hour per day volunteering ‘opportunity’ to cover the phones in the office at lunchtime with little opportunity for volunteers to do anything else? What is our reaction when the volunteers let us down in this role? We most often blame the volunteer. No commitment, lack of respect for the importance of our work, etc. It is worth considering that some volunteer roles may not be the ‘opportunity’ that we think they are and are getting in the way of success with volunteers. More choice and more interesting opportunities will most certainly widen the scope of the volunteers we are able to recruit and will help reduce the potential for burnout.

“We can spend a great
deal of time complaining
about volunteers and
their commitment. But
the real question has to
be whether we are giving
them a reason to turn up.”

Share the Mission

This is a key area for board, committee or other volunteer roles. Too often as organizations we focus upon the tasks that need to get done when we consider our volunteer strategy. We look for people who can do the tasks we have created or who have ‘expert’ knowledge to bring to the organization. This works to some extent as some people are looking for work experience or somewhere to expand on their skills. However, many people (especially higher skilled volunteers) are looking for something beyond task. They are looking at your mission and assessing whether it aligns with their values, passions and interests. They have valuable skills and knowledge to offer. Trying to make them fit into a task based role that doesn’t seem relevant to the mission creates a substantial disconnect between the organization and the potential or current volunteer. It is important to relate the task or role that is being offered to overall mission. What will be different as a result of their involvement? Sharing the impact of volunteer roles, successes for the agency and progress on mission on an ongoing basis are also extremely important to keeping volunteers at any level of your organization engaged.

After all, who wants to stuff envelopes when they could be helping to raise money for a valuable cause? Involving, clarifying, creating and sharing will help associations get the most and the best from
their volunteers at every level.