Home 2017 Managing Volunteer Expectations

Managing Volunteer Expectations

by Ashima Goyal Siraj
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Photograph by Tim Marshall

Why do volunteers quit? Is it the lack of enthusiasm and commitment? Sometimes it is a poorly managed volunteering experience that leads to volunteers falling out.

I have been a volunteer for as long as I can remember. Starting at nearly 5 years of age, when my parents used to take me to medical camps, to until recently, when I just finished a 2-year volunteering project with a Foundation in Angola, Africa working with street children.

Volunteering has always been the high point for me — new skills, new friends and new purposes. In fact, volunteering led me to switch careers from engineering to development sector. But it has not always been easy. On occasions, I have come back home feeling dissatisfied and thinking of never returning back to the organisation. As a volunteer, I wish that no volunteer should ever feel that.

Volunteers represent a big resource for NGOs but volunteer retention is something many organisations struggle with. Ever since I switched my career to development sector I have had a chance to work with many NGOs and look at the problem from the other side.

Volunteering makes people happy…except when it doesn’t and that is when a volunteer quits. It is not a lack or commitment or enthusiasm from any side but more of a mis-management of expectations.

Volunteering makes people happy…except when it doesn’t and that is when a volunteer quits. It is not a lack or commitment or enthusiasm from any side but more of a mis-management of expectations. Below are a few practices that helped us engage long-term volunteers effectively and ensure that both the volunteer and the organisation have a meaningful and mutually beneficial relationship.

Volunteer Orientation

Setting up temporary school in Uttarakhand post floods

Volunteers come in with a broad understanding of what the organisation does but an initial orientation by a staff member goes a long way in helping them understand the organisation’s work and how their role will help in the mission. Be clear on what is expected from them. This is also a great opportunity to take up their questions and clarify doubts.

Identifying Volunteer Motivation

It is important to match volunteer role to their motivation. Do they wish to utilise existing skills or learn something new? Is their motivation to meet new people? A mismatch will soon result in the volunteer quitting.

For example, I am an engineer. When I started contacting organisations for volunteering opportunities they all were very excited because they needed someone to handle their data, manage their website, create a newsletter; write project reports, etc. But my motivation was to learn something new and explore a different space than “utilise my existing skills”. I ultimately volunteered with an organisation where they offered me to teach children and I stayed with them for 5 years until I had to move cities.

Clear Communication

Women’s Day volunteers

Effective and prompt communication is the key to any volunteer program. Volunteers need  clear communications about their work. Don’t inform your volunteers about a training or an event just a day before. Communicate early and also communicate regularly like through a monthly newsletter to let your volunteers know about what is happening within the organisation and/or about new opportunities.

Volunteers should have a clear point of contact for any queries they may have about their work or otherwise. There should also be regular feedbacks to and feedbacks from the volunteer about their work and experience to help identify any support that the volunteer may need.

Flexibility in Opportunities

This may not be possible for all organisations but having a range of engagement levels will help in volunteer retention. Some volunteers (like working professionals) may only be available over the weekends while some (like mothers with school going kids) may only have time over weekday mornings. Having a range of opportunities that allows volunteers to engage at their pace and convenience will help bringing them in and also retaining them for a long time.

Sometimes a long-standing volunteer may need to take a break and reduce his/her responsibilities. Having flexible opportunities means that he/she doesn’t need to completely drop out of the organisation and can still continue to contribute.

Volunteer Recognition

Clube de Curiosidade – Fundacao

Volunteering in itself is rewarding and is driven by self-motivation. Volunteers do not necessarily want anything tangible in return for their efforts but they need to feel that the organisation and the community they are working for, value their effort. But as humans, we all carry an invisible board of ‘I MATTER’ and it really helps to see it mirrored if the organisation carries the board of ‘YOU MATTER’. A simple Thank You, a birthday greeting and/or an appreciation message is all it takes to keep the spirits high.

The best way to ensure a healthy relationship is by talking to your volunteers and finding out what works for them. Is their work making a difference to the society and to them? Are they happy? A happy volunteer is a your biggest advertisement and an unsatisfied one, a walking dynamite.

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