Volunteers: Getting to the Heart of It

by Theresa A. Shubeck, Executive Vice President

artwork for volunteer articleA powerful dynamic exists between two people united in common service to a vision or cause. Passion and creativity energize limitless possibilities. Predictably, challenges arise because we are fettered by expectations, other responsibilities, and time limitations. Complications are heightened when one person is a staff member and the other a volunteer.

In consulting, we dedicate equal parts to listening and talking. Both communication methods provide support and advice. One of the topics I hear a lot of “complaints” about is volunteers. Are any of these familiar to you?

  • It takes more time to use a volunteer than to do it myself.
  • I can’t rely on them to get it done when I need it.
  • I have to pick up the pieces and do it at the last minute.
  • They get the glory when I do the work.
  • They have too many new ideas that have nothing to do with what we are trying to accomplish.
  • It is always the same people who volunteer.

I’d like to offer a new way of looking at this topic and combine some practical techniques with a thoughtful approach to enriching the conversation with prospective volunteers BEFORE you enlist their help. The competition for recruiting leadership volunteers is stiff. Your technique must match or at least approximate the performance of peak advancement programs. Remember, however, that the motivational power of a volunteer’s heartfelt faith and spiritual commitment has no parallel in the secular world.

Dialogue with your Volunteers – Long-timers, New and Prospective

A pastor recently spoke to me about his challenges recruiting prospective volunteers, particularly among families aged 30 – 45. Sunday soccer games, varying school schedules and rushed dinners pull at parish commitments. How can these parents possibly find the time or enthusiasm to volunteer? Yet, this pastor knew that their desire was present, the skills abundant, and the parish needs many.  We decided to speak to each member of the family – one-on-one – to explore how they viewed their parish amidst the cacophony of their activities and demands. And, further, to see how the desire within their heart could manifest itself in greater service.

Age-appropriate questions for each family member were posed in the areas of personal spiritual growth, vibrant community worship, and eventually, ownership and involvement with other parishioners. We asked questions such as: “How important is the sense of community you experience through the parish? What factors would improve your experience? How might you participate in improving the experience?” All led to meaningful dialogue, reflecting about the “what ifs,” and arriving at a place where the prospective volunteer is desirous and willing to actively participate in a deeper way.

Long-time volunteers experience burn-out and boredom, and may feel taken for granted.  Are you guilty of assuming a volunteer will help “because they always have,” asking someone who’s reliable to take on more, or perhaps jettisoning your tedious tasks to a faithful senior? Why not pick three individuals who are your “go to” people, schedule time to meet with them, and listen to them about their experiences. Prepare open-ended questions ahead of time and then “interview” them.

What will you accomplish? First, by the very fact that you want to know what they think and feel, you are demonstrating their importance to you and to your organization. Secondly, you are stewarding a very important relationship. Perhaps they will recommit to their current volunteer task. Maybe they will agree to do something different – because you now know more about them and see a possible fit for a new role. Perhaps they will graciously choose to take a break, but through their commitment will help you recruit someone new to take their place. This exercise adds another layer to stewardship and ongoing cultivation of these valuable relationships.

Then there are the new volunteers that may have been in a leadership or supporting role for only a year. They are perhaps the most critical group with which to speak. You may be concerned that a bumpy first year will discourage them. Or maybe they just didn’t measure up to your expectations. You recruited them with great hopes…but did you spell out expectations on the front end? A written bulleted list of roles and responsibilities or expectations should be prepared before you seek to enlist someone. Sit with them and discuss what is expected – negotiate on some points if you feel that’s appropriate, but don’t compromise what you need from them so much that the relationship will be unfulfilling and non-productive for your organization and for them.

A good example of this is recruiting a development committee chair – perhaps the job that you are eager to give to anyone who will take it. You might be desperate – your September appeal letter needs to be sent to the printer and you want to add the chair’s name to it. After running through a series of “no’s” from other candidates, you are ready to give the role to anyone.  Try approaching the entire process differently, conducting the conversations described above with potential volunteer candidates months earlier. You will then see where or how their gifts and talents match the needs of your program.

Linking Volunteers to Donor Stewardship

When my daughter was in second grade and I picked her up from school, she began mimicking the question I had asked her for years. She plopped down in the back seat, buckled her seatbelt and said dramatically, “So, how was your day?” I can vividly remember one time in particular when I launched into a challenge I was trying to sort through with a donor and how I could talk to them about a difficult situation. She paused and simply replied, “Well, just listen to them. Everyone likes to feel important.”

Aside from giving me a pure directive about our mother/daughter relationship, I have repeatedly returned to that straightforward advice from an 8-year old…don’t talk, just listen. When your volunteer pool seems slight, when you are not sure what role to recruit someone for, or when you are indecisive about what aspect of your philanthropic needs suits someone’s interests, find time to meet…pose a few questions, and then just listen. In fact, if you are regularly spending time face-to-face with people (or even one-on-one over the phone if your donors are distant), you and they will grow in understanding how their needs and yours converge.

Consider the model of a Christian steward as devoted listener. Suspend judgment, listen with your whole heart, discern the urgency, and encourage a desire or dream. Ask open-ended, short questions that enter someone’s heart, using the time-proven opener of, “what, why, when, where or how.” For example:

  • “What do you like best about chairing the gala committee?”
  • “What was your biggest challenge?”
  • “How did I help you the most?”
  • “How do you feel your skills were best utilized? “

Following your meetings, determine an approach, plan or next step for each individual. They may be ready to be formally evaluated as a member of your board, reenergized to serve as event journal chair for next year, or eager to learn more about a particular program component that they want to fund.

Match the Ideal with the Practical

How can we transition from these lofty conversations to our routine work at hand? Some proven practices include:

  • When you use “job descriptions,” which spell out specifically the role and responsibility of the volunteer, also highlight what you will do to offer guidance and assistance. This lays out expectations up front and provides a useful tool for discussion at recruitment and renewal.
  • Think about your desired results for a volunteer committee meeting before it happens. What is the most productive outcome? Discuss this with your committee chair and strategize how to handle the naysayers or overly-creative thinkers. Your volunteer chair will be more effective at corralling his/her peers.
  • In your relationship with volunteers, strike a balance between being accessible “at their convenience” and when it matters most. We must be flexible, but we should also set expectations for communication. For example, if you answer e-mail at 11:00 p.m., then expect that you will receive e-mail at 11:00 p.m. from your night owl volunteers.
  • Solicit a prospect for a gift at the time you are recruiting them for a critical development role. It is better to know that someone will or won’t contribute at a specified threshold level at the beginning of your meeting with them and, based on that result, make a determination about whether or not you proceed with the next step of recruiting them as committee chair. This will avoid the perennial issue of how to approach a committee chair who, six months into the fiscal year, has still not pledged to the annual appeal.
  • All volunteers should have their own elevator speech about your organization. They can then be accurate about the mission and impact, and can combine that with their own unique story about why they are involved. This will create a compelling, unbeatable combination. At unexpected times, they may be asked by friends, coworkers or new acquaintances what they do. By sharing their elevator speech they will be building your network – and probably be commended by that person.
  • Train your volunteers for their roles. This can range from making calls to thank donors for gifts (in which case they need a script as well as a frequently asked questions guide), to a formal session of solicitation training with teaching and role-playing components.
  • Set up your volunteers for early success. If they are soliciting someone, provide them with the most compliant prospects first. If they are to recruit others for the event journal committee, provide them with a few names initially of individuals who have already said they are glad to help. Immediate progress is encouraging and stimulates momentum.
  • Say “thank you” again and again. A late priest in our parish, whose creed was “Adsum – Here I am” never failed to thank those who served at Mass with him. At the recessional, upon entering our church’s gathering space and through the strains of the closing hymn, he would always clearly state, “Thank you for serving!” He never failed to say it, and we never tired of hearing or being motivated by it.

If we believe that volunteers, particularly those to faith-based institutions, are spiritually motivated by “love of other,” we can create and sustain a powerful collaboration. By listening to volunteers’ desires, we will discover what’s in their hearts and encourage faith-filled and gratifying service.

Therroutolo-0792esa A. Shubeck has 34 years of professional philanthropic experience and is currently Executive Vice President of Ruotolo Associates, Inc., overseeing firm-wide client services.  Theresa has been a member of the RA team for 19 years, counselling non-profits of all types, including faith-based and secular institutions. She has been awarded the firm’s Tim Manning Culture of Excellence Award twice and has received the Robert J. Smythe Outstanding Professional Fundraiser Award from the AFP-New Jersey Chapter. Theresa can be reached at 201-665-4572 or tshubeck@ruotoloassoc.com .