How not to treat your volunteers (if you want to keep them happy)

Oftentimes, nonprofit organizations recruiting volunteers target young people with resume gaps whom they treat as disposable resource.

At the first sight, this seems like a win-win situation: the volunteer acquires the professional experience he or she was missing, and the organization has the manpower needed to organize their annual gala.

Once you take a closer look, you realize things are far from perfect. These volunteers are used for menial tasks and they do the job just because they need to add something to their resume’s “Work experience” section. The nonprofit is happy they didn't have to pay balloon inflation services but on the other hand they start to be perceived in a negative way.

What these organizations must learn is that volunteers represent the most valuable resource and should be treated as employees, even if they are not paid. Why not apply employee-retention strategies on your organization’s volunteers, such as offering them growing opportunities or helping them adjust to your organizational culture?

Here are some “nice” things to do to your volunteers if you want to get rid of them. Nevertheless, remember you are paying an acquisition cost for each new volunteer and short-term volunteers are less profitable. Moreover, by treating these workers like garbage your reputation will be damaged and you will be missing great potential:

Not recognizing volunteer contributions

Not showing people you appreciate their work and never expressing gratitude is the easiest way to lose a volunteer or a member of your staff. Saying “Thank you” with all your heart is worth a lot more than money or other benefits.

Pushing volunteers into unskilled labor

Nonprofit organizations got used to older generations that were raised to believe they should contribute even if the work was low-status. Many nonprofit leaders fail to understand that younger generations are different: they are more individualistic, they focus on personal success, and are dealing with a more competitive professional environment. If you want to attract today’s talented millennials, give them meaningful work that matches their qualifications and abilities.

Not providing clear instructions

There’s one thing that volunteers with a strong work ethic hate: not being told the rules of the game. You can’t just make up the rules as your project grows and assign tasks with confusing instructions. This is why you need to provide coaching and direction, otherwise your volunteers won’t stick around for a long time.

Asking volunteers to serve in a role you haven’t tried

Many poor leaders suffer from the so-called Ivory Tower syndrome — not being in touch with the real world. When you don’t show your volunteers you understand the challenges they face and are ready to give a helping hand because you too have been in their position, your volunteer engagement levels start sliding downhill.

Creating a gap between staff and volunteers

Making your volunteers feel like a second-hand resource and distinguishing too much between employees and unpaid workers — that’s another way to create division in your organization and have poorly-coordinated work efforts.

Treating your volunteers really bad

You know you have a serious problem when you treat your volunteers without any respect: not offering water and food during events, leaving them in a position all day without checking on them, not telling volunteers what they are expected to do, giving too much responsibility and little training, abusing unpaid workers verbally, or simply ignoring them.

Remember that today’s beginner volunteer could be tomorrow’s go-to-expert or generous donor. Even minor tasks are important, so always be genuinely grateful, provide clear directions and match volunteer skills with requirements if you want your volunteers to keep coming back. Check more tips for nonprofit professionals at .

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