Leading Volunteers: How to Keep Them Coming Back

How do you lead people who aren’t on your payroll?

Since moving to Minnesota, I’ve wanted to get engaged locally as a volunteer.  Last month I signed up to help at a local agency, and it was a great experience.

The way they worked with the volunteers made it fun, productive and has had me coming back weekly ever since.  Today I’ll share the many things that went right, so that if you find yourself in the business of leading volunteers you’ll have them coming back for more, too.

Leading Volunteers - How to Keep Them Coming Back

The Guy With The Red Halo

On the first day, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this definitely wasn’t it.  The front door opened into a narrow hallway.  Standing alone at the far end was a man in a green shirt and what looked like a red halo around his head.

It looked odd, but I was in too far to turn around now.  “Red Halo” smiled and welcomed me, and introduced himself as Bob.  We shook hands when I reached his end of the hall.

I was now a volunteer at Feed My Starving Children (FMSC), where I would help pack meals for young people in need.  As it turned out, I also got an object lesson in the fine art of leading volunteers.  Here’s how the experience played out, and how you can use the same techniques to lead your own volunteers effectively.

Before – Getting Oriented

It was soon clear that the red halo was actually a hair net, and Bob’s big smile and friendly words of welcome immediately made me feel glad I had come.  This wasn’t going to be as weird as it had appeared in those first few seconds.

Welcome warmly.  Be friendly and accessible when volunteers first arrive.  When people immediately feel like you want them there, it helps break the ice and makes them glad they came.

Bob told me that volunteers need to sign in.  There was a computer monitor in the next room for that purpose.  He could have just pointed, and I’d have been able to figure it out.  Instead, he walked me over, showed me how it worked personally.

Make it easy.  Make the first few tasks as easy as possible; when people experience quick, early successes, it sets a positive atmosphere and keeps them engaged.

After getting me signed in, Bob helped me understand what to do next:  Drop my coat over there; grab a white hair net; have a seat over on the benches.  The briefing will start soon.

Play hostLet people know what to expect in the first few minutes, and help them get comfortable as they adjust to new surroundings.

Once on the benches, I was content to sit there and wait, but Bob came back in a few minutes and said, “Since you are new at this, I thought you might like to work with me on the warehouse team – it will give you the best sense of what’s going on and how it all fits together.”

This extra attention gave me a quick sense of belonging, and I was pleased about the perspective I would get over the whole operation.  Bonus:  I got to upgrade from a white hair net to a green one – warehouse crew only!

Stay engaged.  Keep the positive, friendly interaction going; introduce people to each other, and start to build teams as soon as possible.

During – Staying Organized and Engaged

At starting time, most of the benches were full.  There were about 60 people in the room, a mixture of high school kids and adult volunteers from a locally-owned business.

Another “red hairnet” stepped forward with a microphone and used the first 10 minutes to get us all oriented.

He painted a simple but compelling picture of why this work was important:  One of every nine children in the world was experiencing starvation or malnutrition.  We were going to do something about that.

In 2016, nearly 1.1 million volunteers like us packed more than 284 million meals, yet there is more to be done.

Today, as a group, our job was to combine raw ingredients into meals, seal them into individual bags, put the bags in boxes, and build pallets out of the boxes so that they can be shipped to places in need.

Orient the players.  When you reinforce the reason people are there, it helps focus their efforts, and unites your volunteers with a shared sense of purpose.

They also showed us a short video about Lauza from Uganda, who’s father had died of AIDS and mother had to give her up.  She was two years old when aid workers found her, she was badly underweight, and severely malnourished.  In just two months on the food we were preparing, she had gained five pounds.  Two years later she was flourishing.

The day I visited, the food we were packing was going to Haiti, and we were motivated to get started.  This wasn’t simply about putting things in boxes, it was about getting healthful nutrition to kids like Lauza who desperately needed it.

Make it personal.  People do their work with greater care and interest when they can visualize the specific way in which it will help others.

Next came the rules.  Sure, they were leading volunteers, but they weren’t at all wishy-washy about standards.  Before setting us to work, they made sure we removed extraneous jewelry and watches, had our hair nets on, and washed our hands with soap for at least 20 seconds.

(Hot tip:  if you sing the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself twice, that’s about the right amount of time).

Set clear expectations.  Specify the “rules” with respect to the reason for having them.  Saying, “No jewelry allowed” is just a rule.  When you tell them “we don’t want a kid to bite down on your birthstone ring” gives a good reason for following that rule.

Once inside the packing area, Bob identified the tasks to be done by our warehouse team, asked who would be interested in doing what, and then personally showed us how to do each task correctly.

Other “red hairnets” took charge of the volunteers who would be packing the food, formed them into teams, and taught them what to do.  There was no wasted time.

Be organizedPeople appreciate it when you use their time efficiently, so be prepared.  Make it easy to identify who the leaders are – colored shirts, or even hairnets help volunteers to know who to turn to with questions.  Break training down to the smallest level as quickly as possible.

Most people work best on teams, and FMSC took advantage of that fact.  Groups of six gathered around U-shaped steel packing tables to assemble the meals.  As each table filled enough bags to complete a full box, they let out a shout to celebrate their success and motivate the other tables.

At the warehouse end of the operation, we paired off to do our tasks, racing to ensure the tables had enough supplies to do their jobs even before they had to ask for anything.

Make it a team sportWhen people have others to share the experience with, it brings them closer together, makes it more enjoyable, and builds motivation.

Once the process was smoothly underway, somebody turned on the music.  The upbeat rhythms helped keep the mood light and the packing pace high.  I’m pretty sure I even saw someone dancing when a Justin Bieber tune came on (It wasn’t me!)

Let it be funReally.  When it’s fun, people come back.

Even though we were in the groove, Bob continued to make the rounds.  He wasn’t just checking to ensure we were doing everything right (he was).  He was also checking in with us, how we were feeling, and made an effort to get to know us a little bit more each time he came by.

Continue to stay engagedForm a personal connection and look for ways to positively reinforce the behaviors you are looking for.

Leading Volunteers - FMSC

After – Providing Closure

Before we knew it, two hours had flown by, and Bob told us that we were done.  It took only a few minutes more to sweep up, then they invited us to gather around the large pallet of boxes that we had just packed.

Many put their hands on the boxes as Bob offered a prayer – we were the last ones to touch the meals before they were put in the hands of someone in need.

Add ritualIt doesn’t have to be a prayer, but developing group customs like cheering when a box is packed or dedicating your finished product helps make the event special and strengthens the bonds among your volunteers.

As we filed back out to the benches, we had a chance to taste samples of the meals in little cups.  The leaders presented a quick summary of our efforts:  86 boxes packed with a total of 18,576 meals, enough to feed 51 kids for a year.

That felt good.

Provide closureGive your volunteers a sense of what they have accomplished.  Whether it’s touching a big stack of boxes, sampling the product, or seeing the numbers, help them feel, taste, and see that they have done something meaningful.

After applause and some words of thanks, they talked about future volunteer opportunities, explained a few other ways that we could help their effort, and then we were done.

Later that day, I got an email thanking me for helping out and providing other ways to make an impact through FMSC.

Stay connectedDon’t let the volunteer experience end when the work is done. Remind them of the positive impact they had, and invite them to come back.

Leading Volunteers – The Takeaway

There are thousands of great charitable organizations that would love to have all the volunteer help they can get.  I suspect that if they are leading volunteers the way FMSC is, they get a lot of repeat help.

In fact, last week they asked if any of us had volunteered there before, and nearly every hand went up.  Some have been helping there for years.

When you value other people’s time, get them oriented and focused, and work with teams that you keep motivated and engaged, you can accomplish a great deal leading vounteers, and they will keep coming back for more.

Come to think of it, I bet these sorts of approaches work really well even if they aren’t volunteers, and just happen to be on the payroll.

To lead is to serve. Click To Tweet

Lead on!

NoteFeed My Starving Children is one of many volunteer-powered organizations working to make a difference in the world today.  It’s a Christian organization, but you don’t need to be a Christian either to pack or accept the food.  Giving is for those in need, as it should be.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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