2014 saw one of the highest numbers of donated volunteer hours in the United States since analysts began tracking stats in 2002. In total, 8.7 billion hours were served in non-profits and churches. That’s billion, with a “b”. More people are volunteering more hours than we’ve ever seen. Yet there are many churches and non-profits struggling to accomplish their ministries and retain volunteers.
I’ve had the privilege of serving and volunteering in churches, Boy Scouts, with the local college, Adopt-a-Highway, the local food shelter, Main Street organizations, and with the Civil Air Patrol. A common thing that they all struggled with was the care of volunteers. Failing to take care of your people results in volunteers going through a constant cycle of turnover, and often leaving as fast as they’re coming. In some cases, leaving faster than they’re coming, and ultimately leading to the shutdown of the chapter, ministry, or organization.
It’s very easy for church and non-profit leaders to fall into the trap of focusing so hard on the people they are serving, that they neglect the people helping them do the service. I’ve seen many organizations with excellent orientation programs for new volunteers. They bring people in to help serve with excellent training on the mission, vision, goals, and direction of the organization, only to leave them flapping in the wind months later with no support or continued oversight. Lack of communication, lack of training, lack of attention to needs, and lack of care, all add up to a very disgruntled volunteer force. (By the way, the same applies to employees!)
This is especially true in churches and non-profits where the leader has set themselves up to do most of the work. Often experts tout the need for better delegation in these cases, but delegation is not enough. Delegation only works if the individual being delegated to has been properly trained and then supported by the delegator. Without the follow-up support, the volunteer will ultimately leave. One of the most disheartening things a church or nonprofit leader can face is the exodus of volunteers.
This exodus is so preventable if they just take the time to support them. Though we definitely see this issue in corporate America, this problem is so much worse in nonprofits and churches because the people serving are not paid. The only thing keeping them in their position is their desire to serve, and when that desire goes away due to poor leadership, poor support, or poor execution, they leave without a second thought. Leaving becomes a relief to them.
So how does this issue get solved? First, let me tell you what doesn’t work. Long-term awards. Support, praise, and awards all need to be in the moment as much as possible. Annual awards or big thank you’s should be the capstone of ongoing support, not the first time someone hears gratitude for their service. This is, and take special note of this, NO BETTER than no recognition at all.
So what does proper care and feeding of people really look like? Here are a few suggestions:
- Proper training. Study how to properly train others in your setting and utilize the Show Me step.
- Micromanage. “WHAT?! A leader should never micromanage” some might say. Well, they’d be wrong. A leader absolutely should micromanage a new volunteer/employee doing a task that is new to them. The key isn’t avoiding micromanagement (this is a rookie mistake); it’s in applying micromanagement in the right scenarios, applying it fully (meaning you cover everything so the micromanaging doesn’t need to continue in perpetuity), and then stopping once the volunteer is doing the job correctly and no longer needs that level of oversight. This is a concept called situational leadership. Through my years of work in Christian retail, I can confidently say Pastors are the WORST at this. They often take pride in saying they “don’t micromanage”. Every time I hear that I think to myself, “ah, so your new ministries start on the brink of failure…”
- Over communicate. If you do a SWOT analysis for any organization in the world, “communication” will be listed under the Weaknesses column. This is forever a problem when people are involved. Go above and beyond what seems sufficient so that your volunteers (and employees) actually get the communication they need. Never assume they know what you need them to know. Oh, and make sure it’s timely!
- Regular check-ins. In the training world this is also known conceptually as Performance Support – helping folks after their training to make sure things were implemented properly and are continuing to run. This is also a GREAT opportunity to praise good efforts, listen closely for problems, and keep things heading in the right direction. Let me say it again because it is so important: not supporting or checking in with volunteers past their initial training is one of the greatest errors churches and non-profits make and leads to some of the greatest problems they face. This applies to employees too. It should be a constant effort on the part of every leader of volunteers or employees to see how their people are doing. In the corporate world, there is a mass movement away from the “annual review”, partly because this (like the awards I mentioned earlier) is too long of a window to be of real value. Check in often. How often? It depends on the job. For coffee team volunteers at church, weekly might be a good idea. For a counseling service, maybe it’s monthly because sooner than that wouldn’t yield any relevant data. Use your judgment on timing, but make sure you do it.
- Good old fashioned hand-written thank you notes. Hand-written anything went out of style once email became widely available, and a genuine thank you note is a thing rarely seen today. It’s far faster and easier to email, text, tweet, or Facebook chat a thank you to someone. However, this loses the personal touch that is so valued by volunteers and employees. The great thing about a hand-written thank you note is that it stands out, and it has staying power. 20 years later, I still have some special notes I’ve received. Surprise them with gratitude. (Thanks, Mom and Grandma, for teaching me this one!)
It’s not hard to properly care and feed people, but it takes time, planning, and discipline. Tell them thank you. Tell them you appreciate what they do with specific examples. Look for ways to support them in their ongoing work and show them you care. People won’t do what you need them to do until they know that you care about them.
What area do you see needs the most improvement in your organization? Make a plan and start working to improve it today!