The Three Pillars of Effective Volunteer Engagement

There is much written about volunteer management and more recently, volunteer engagement. This language shift from ‘management’ to ‘engagement’ has been hopeful, as there is recognition now that volunteers don’t want to feel managed, and that beginning from that place is the first step in turning off a volunteer. Traditional volunteer management literature has always felt very HR, treating volunteers the same as paid employees, and borrowing best practices for training/orientation, retention, evaluation etc. However, volunteers are not paid employees – they are not PAID! This distinction sounds simple, but quite frankly, as a ‘Volunteer Manager’ (for lack of a better word) for over 10 years, I have had to reiterate this message again and again: ‘volunteers are not paid’. Every time a volunteer walks in the door, they are doing this from their own generosity of giving their time, they are doing this ‘voluntarily’, and they are not paid a penny. Are we, as paid employees, treating our volunteers with the respect that they deserve?

I believe that there are three critical pillars for effective volunteer engagement. Like the three legs on a stool, if one leg breaks, then the stool falls down. The three pillars are: 1. Organizational Commitment and Capacity, 2. Attractive and Diverse Roles, and 3. Culture of Belonging.

  1. Organizational Commitment and Capacity
  • Collaborative and strong partnerships between staff and volunteer team
  • Top-down commitment to fostering effective volunteer involvement
  • Consistent best practice framework to support Chapter staff in their partnership with volunteers, while allowing for flexibility
  • Ensuring adequate resources are in place for volunteers to do their job effectively
  • Centralize front-end volunteer management process so Chapters can focus on volunteer engagement
  • Volunteer roles established at all levels of the organization, and confirmed in official org chart

 This is the behind-the-scenes work, that needs to be organizationally, for volunteer engagement to be effective. It MUST be top-down, with clear direction and policies endorsed by the CEO/ED and executive team. Without this endorsement, it is next to impossible to create a volunteer-friendly environment.

  1. Attractive and Diverse Roles 
  • Diverse roles mean community members can find a suitable match
  • Design roles based on trends (episodic / group volunteering)
  • Pilot ‘out-of-the-box’ roles (ex. Virtual, episodic and micro volunteering, and role-sharing)
  • Flexibility for volunteers to change roles
  • Leadership roles, succession planning, and targetted recruitment for leadership volunteers

People want to donate their time strategically, and either use the talents/skills that they possess, or else, volunteer so that they can stretch and develop new talents/skills. There are FAR TOO many ‘joe-jobs’ for volunteers and not enough creative, and higher skill level roles for volunteers. We need to stop giving  fun the fun and creative work to paid employees, and leave the work that no one wants to do to volunteers. I believe this is the biggest factor for people who get turned off of volunteering.

  1. Culture of Belonging
  • Volunteers feel that they are valued and they belong
  • Communication strategy using social media tools, photos, videos, so volunteers can engage with staff (especially senior staff) and engage with each other
  • Recognition is meaningful – Professional Development opportunities, certificates for portfolio, role promotion, asking for feedback
  • Community building atmosphere – the environment should be welcoming and fun

Bottom line: many volunteers feel like outsiders in the organizations where they volunteer. Volunteers want to feel that they belong, that they are heard, that they are recognized for the amazing work they do, and their commitment to the cause. For inspiration, learn about Santropol Roulant (in Montreal) which as a ‘living organization’ embodies this commitment to volunteers and culture of belonging better than any other organization that I know of –

I leave you with my favourite volunteer quote, for inspiration:

“We do not create volunteer motivation. We discover it and then link it creatively to organizational need.” (Linda Graff: Best of all: The quick reference guide to effective volunteer involvement, 2005, p. 65)


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