How to keep your volunteers happy - 6 tips

Six tips coming. But first, very likely, you’re a volunteer yourself. So ask yourself: what keeps you happy? For my part, what keeps me happy as a volunteer is being appreciated. It’s easy. So, when dealing with volunteers, the summary is: be really grateful. But let me explain in more detail:

© Roger Woodley - St Paul's, Sale, Cheshire

1. Be specific and prompt in your praise

Being thanked for the time you’re giving up, for the hard work you’re putting in, and for the ideas you come up with – that’s the chief thing. But it mustn’t be just a pat ‘thank you’, and nothing more. It’s much better if the thanks relate to a specific contribution, such as what was done in the way of stewarding, or catering, or introducing people. Pick out what each volunteer does specifically, not in a general way. Say thank you orally, warmly, on the day, and again by email later.

2. Play into people's strengths

Going back further, if there are a sufficient number of volunteers, try to allocate them to jobs which fit their preferences and skills. If someone has a notably friendly or outgoing manner, make sure they’re the steward on the front door, smiling and welcoming the visitors. If someone’s really keen on local history, and can make it interesting to others, get them to carry out a short guided tour of the premises. If they really like serving tea and cakes, put them on that job. It’s obvious really, but you personally need to get to know who’s good at what.

3. Be efficient and well-organised

Volunteers despair when they see a muddle. Keep a careful list of who volunteered last year, or who has mentioned some interest to you during the year, and go back to them next year, beginning with how grateful you were for their excellent contribution on last year's Heritage Open Days. Give a good briefing about the job to be done on the day, or in writing in advance, and express your appreciation.

4. Develop a team spirit

The most important thank you is words. But sometimes, if there’s an opportunity during Heritage Open Days, or at the end of it, convening all your volunteers for a little drinks party, or just a cup of tea, goes down very well and develops a sense of team spirit among your group.

5. Give volunteers equal status

If volunteers and professionals are involved together, jointly at a task, try to make sure the volunteers do not feel they are second-class citizens. It can easily happen. Of course, paid staff may know more, have more up-to-date experience and, for them, there’s more at stake in the whole exercise. But wherever possible, volunteers should have equal status.

6. Provide opportunities for personal development 

Try and see the whole process of volunteering from the volunteers’ point of view, as a mini-career, with a sense of progression from year to year: individuals should feel they are growing and developing their skills. Volunteering does not remove any of the usual motivations in work, but because it’s money-free, the other classical motivators – appreciation, personal development, pride in the job etc. – all come into their own, just as they always should in paid occupations.

The above are my feelings from experience, both as an individual volunteer and lately as a recruiter and manager of volunteers. But others will have had equal if not more experience, so post your responses and tips – PLEASE. The future as we all have to realise is with the voluntary sector. Nothing is more important than managing it well.