Engaging and Retaining those elusive volunteers…

By Jodi Salmond, Reef Check Australia

Volunteer engagement and retention have long been an issue for the not for profit sector.  Organisations reliant on unpaid workers have substantial investments in time, training, and financial input, as well as an ongoing mentoring/upskilling programs to ensure volunteers feel both valued and supported, in addition to having the right skills to conduct the tasks required of them.  Despite this, some volunteers still cancel last minute, or cease to show up at all- leaving organisers stretched, frustrated, and unable to meet funding milestones.

We all invest a lot in all our volunteers.  I believe that overall, we are great at supporting them; we train them, we guide them, we answer their questions, we thank them for, validate their efforts and make sure everyone feels comfortable in their sparkly new roles.  And yet the turnover rate is still high.  Personally (and professionally) I continue to be interested in how we can all find and recruit dedicated, accountable, reliable volunteers for the long game.

Following my successful application for an ACSA Seed Grant, I chose to look at several different life coaching programs and books to help me gain a better understanding as to how I might better manage my own thoughts, feelings and expectations around volunteerism, how to create accountability to ourselves and each other, how to ensure less burnout in an industry that is known for it, and how to create engaged, energised long term volunteers.

I signed up for several different courses, and admittedly, I didn’t complete them all.  Some required too much time, some just didn’t suit my learning style, and for some, the expectation of what needed to be achieved daily was not realistic for someone working (almost) full time.  I did however find a few programs that really stood out for me, giving me small pieces of gold that I have taken on board not only for myself, but that I have since passed along to my volunteers through different training programs over the past 9 months.  I have found these to be truly helpful for both myself and my volunteer engagement, and would recommend everyone give them a go! The biggest nuggets of gold I have learnt and want to share include:

  • According to recent research, a habit takes 66 days (not 21 as many people believe) to create.  This really pushes people to genuinely create habits.  The first 50 days were hard.  I personally found that I really enjoy the routine I have created for myself in getting ready for the day.
  • When required to do something that is not for yourself, it is easy to push it aside.  Volunteers have to feel ownership over a task to see it through.  Ensure this ownership is facilitated!
  • Do a personality profile on yourself, and learn to recognise the characteristics of your volunteers.  Understanding each other’s needs, learning, and communication styles etc INSTANTLY increases understanding for both parties, and creates an open space of compassion and empathy.
  • When the number of tasks is too high, or the size (perceived or real) of the task is too large, many peoples default is to feel overwhelmed and thus retreat.  It is vitally important to remember this one thing: ‘How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time’.  We need to change our default state to one of encompassing challenges rather than hiding from them.
  • The greatest thing we can do as leaders is to create more leaders; then let them fail forward.  Failure is key to success, so celebrate them!  Only through failing can you identify what doesn’t work.  If you are successful at everything you ever do, you are not pushing hard enough.
  • Self Care in paramount.  We all know this, yet it’s the first thing that disappears when time is at a premium.  Start your day focussed on YOU.  Take time to plan your day, meditate, journal and exercise.  THEN you can start the day feeling your absolute best because you spent time on you, your mindset and yourself.

I learnt a lot about myself during my search.  This has guided me on a path of continual self-development that I thoroughly believe has made me a better trainer, better leader and better overall human.  My volunteers seem active, engaged and eager to join in the wide array of activities we are a part of.  They understand there are boundaries to our relationship, and I no longer work all hours of every day, but purposely take time out to practice gratitude, to reset and re-energise.  I believe learning is the key to growth, and if we can all learn and grow together as an organisation, a team, a company, that we will all benefit and our volunteers will be around for a lot longer.

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