It’s time to give volunteers the keys to the family car...

main.jpgMinnesota is a great place to be a volunteer… There is a robust nonprofit community with plenty of meaningful opportunities.  The latest numbers (from 2015) have 35.4% of residents volunteering ranking Minnesota 2nd in the nation!

Yet Minnesota ranks 12th in volunteer retention at 68.5%.  How is it that nearly a third of all Minnesotan volunteers do not return?

We know what we’re supposed to be doing to keep them:

  • Show some gratitude
  • Honor your volunteers, especially the top ones
  • Make it easy AND make it fun
  • Build the volunteer community

Moreover, we all know that there are reasons beyond our control:

  • Moving away
  • New family responsibilities
  • Health/physical issues

But what else is missing? What can we do to get and keep great volunteers?

  1. Ownership
  2. Challenges

That’s right – give your volunteers ownership. And I don’t just mean ownership in the “this is my project and I’m proud of it” sense. I mean that it’s time to give volunteers the keys to the family car… It is time to let them own their actions.

Instead of acting like the Wizard of Oz and hiding in our offices to come out occasionally pointing at what needs doing, we need to be more like King Arthur…


Get your volunteers involved in more than just execution. Get them involved in planning. Get them involved in follow-up. Get them involved in the whole process from start to finish.

I fully recognize that there is a time and place for a straightforward “volunteer shows up – volunteer completes task – volunteer leaves” situation. Nevertheless, for every other volunteer activity, we are leaving chips on the table if we do not get our volunteers more involved.

And this is where #2 comes in.

Challenges are important. It is one thing to invite a volunteer to plan an envelope-stuffing party or a wall-painting day… It is entirely different to give your volunteers the opportunity to help plan your marketing strategy, to help execute sponsorship solicitations for your gala, or to be a part of your 10-year strategic planning session.

Those are the challenges, the deep engagement moments, where volunteers transform from one-and-done to life-long partners. It is hard to let go of control – it is hard to hand over even a little bit of the organization’s wellbeing that you care so much about. But it is necessary if you want to build an unstoppable army of volunteers that will not just show up and do something one day, but will show up again and again, tirelessly advocating for your cause.

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