Volunteers: How To Recruit And Keep

This could be you on the phone in the next week or so. 

“Hi Margaret.  Hey, we’re looking ahead to next year and we’d like you to be a member of the Education Committee.  Will you do this?  Will you join this committee?”

[The Response -- loud enough to hear over the phone]  “Gag, choke, cough, spit, wheeze.  No, thanks.”

You Want Me To Join A Committee?  Gag!

It’s that time of year.  We are “nominating”.  Yikes!  Soon a slate of names will be submitted for approval to fill various positions in our organization (a church).   Many of these positions are committee members or chairpersons.  In other words, we are inviting persons in our faith community to join a committee, or worse, to chair a committee.  This is an unfortunate predicament[1] .  “Please join a committee!  Please chair this committee!”  Is this a death wish? 

Recruiting And Keeping Volunteers Is Hard To Do

Most organizations – especially those dependent on volunteer participation – experience this sort of drama on a regular basis.  Let’s be honest, recruiting and keeping volunteers is hard to do.  We know this.  We also know that to recruit a volunteer is hard enough.  It is much more difficult to keep a volunteer for the long term.

So, let’s talk about improving volunteer participation[2] .  In my mind, this means considering three questions (among others):

  1. How do we increase the number of new volunteers?
  2. How do we increase each volunteer’s commitment to long-term participation? 
  3. How do we increase the effectiveness of our volunteers? 

Quick Tips To Improve Volunteer Participation

Here are a few tips to consider.  Each tip is based on one or two core principles about human behavior, which I won’t spell out here, but I think you will find the ideas intuitively appealing.  Lumped together, these tips might help us begin to address the three questions above.  Of course, no single tip (or even three of them lumped together!) will solve every volunteer problem.  Consider these tips the start of a long conversation.  

  • Volunteer Tip 1:  Believe and behave as if our volunteers are the most valuable resource.   Develop a culture in your organization that says to everyone: Volunteers are our most valuable resource (not the programs, not the building, not the dollars, not even our theology).  This means you believe and behave as if your volunteers are so important that you cannot accomplish your mission without them[3] .  (OK, this is not so quick.  Be patient, because changing your organization’s culture takes a bit of time.  It starts with tips like this one, though.)
  • Volunteer Tip 2:  Invite a new volunteer to a task, not to a title[4] .  When seeking to recruit a new volunteer, it is best to invite her to do a well-defined, time-limited task rather than to a title.  Give the new volunteer a job to do before you list her as a member of some group or committee.  Most new volunteers are looking for meaningful tasks to do in order to help the organization accomplish its mission.  Their first experience with your organization should be exhilarating and meaningful.  Give the new worker the joy of reporting this to you: “I got something done and it helped!”  Make that experience happen.
  • Volunteer Tip 3:  When inviting a seasoned volunteer into a leadership role (committee member or committee chair), give clear instructions.  We owe it to our experienced volunteers to hand them leadership assignments that are clear and reasonable.  This requires a bit of preparation.  The leadership team for your organization (board or council) must do the hard work ahead of time of 1) developing clear job descriptions and expectations, 2) negotiating time lines, and 3) identifying clear accountability structures (Who is my “supervisor”?  “Who do I go to for help?”)[5]  .

Go.  Make that phone call.


© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, Ph.D (2009).

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  1. For the record, in case my supervising district superintendent is reading, we will meet our obligation to fill the committee slots — albeit begrudgingly!
  2. If your organization is interested in hearing more about this, feel free to contact me at jeff@unpackingideas.org.  We could talk about a custom designed training event for you, or perhaps you would be interested in my four-module leadership development seminar for your board or leadership team.  Maybe for you, one or two phone calls would be helpful.  Check out these options on the Scheduling A Workshop With Jeff page above.
  3. The theological underpinnings for this idea should be obvious to church leaders, even though we forget it readily.  The God-given value of the individual volunteer is joined at its root by the ideas we sometimes call biblical economics and the stewardship of scarce resources.
  4. For another discussion about this idea, see my May 4, 2009 article, Church Power Dots: Growing from the bottom up.
  5. Perhaps in a future article I will offer my perspective on a related issue — the two-edged source of burn-out:  Guilt and Resentment.

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