How to build a volunteer army


Volunteers are the backbone of the not-for-profit sector. What other industry can build a workforce on free, willing labour? So listen up charities, stop yer whinging about being poor and fist pump the air because you have access to the most cost effective and passionate army in the universe! Here are my tips for how to build the best volunteer team. I’ve learned the knack over 20 years of building teams and working with volunteers.

1. Treat ’em like your prized employees

It is crucial that volunteers are given sky high expectations for their performance within the team. I went so far as to develop a volunteer contract which articulated my expectations of the volunteer including reliable attendance, good presentation and top quality work. Even when I was the CEO and not the direct volunteers coordinator, I interviewed them to make sure they were a good team fit and I made sure I got to know them personally. I gave them pep talks on how they represented a brand and the customer had to have a wonderful experience with them.

If volunteers become unreliable, fire them. You don’t need the dead weight of a volly who makes a personal appointment on the day he or she is rostered to volunteer. I do not have five seconds to tolerate cynicism which is toxic to any team. Ditch cynical volunteers. They’re better off playing bingo at the club than dragging down your team’s wonderful enthusiasm for the cause.

Be specific about time frames and shifts. No nicking off early! If you observe the following points thoroughly, you’ll have no problems with volunteers failing to show or leaving early. All of the above requires lots of love and attention. They’re wonderful people giving you time. Nurture them well.

2. Ask and it shall be delivered unto you

If you don’t ask, you don’t get so be specific about the the skills and talents you really need to add to your volunteer army when you communicate with your networks for new volunteers. Be specific. Need bookkeeping skills? Hankering for a graphic designer? Can’t live without admin support? Need an industrial strength envelope stuffer? Just ask. I always ask volunteers what talents they can bring to the team. This has often provided inspiration for new fundraising ideas.

3. Create teams

Give your volunteers the opportunity to develop their leadership and team skills by placing them into small, regular teams. Appoint a team leader to that group and assign goals for the team. Teams can compete on a leader board but most of all, they can develop good relationships with other team members and enjoy the experience much more.

4. Make it fun or else

Your volunteer workforce will fizzle if your vollies are not having a good time. It will boom if they’re having the time of their life! They will also become super duper loyal if they’re enjoying themselves and their time spent with you. Make sure the work conditions are good, the atmosphere is fun (Michael Jackson pumping through the place helps) and the actual tasks they are working on are varied and interesting. Make sure you match the people to the right tasks. Celebrate wins with your volunteers. In fact any reason to celebrate is part of the atmosphere of fun which makes volunteering so rewarding. International Day of the Volunteer is 5 December. Order a cake!

5. Thank your volunteers, often

When I was volunteering in Ethiopia, I was profusely thanked, every single day I was there. It made me willing to come back year after year. It’s so important to show gratitude to your volunteer army. Remember their birthdays, their anniversaries with your organisation. Always ALWAYS take the time to thank your volunteers when they leave for the day. Make sure they leave with warm fuzzies from a day well spent in the service of changing the world  and you will have a loyal volunteer workforce. They’re a special tribe of awesome people to make your work possible.

6. Help people find their purpose

This is one of the added benefits of working with a volly workforce – the good feeling you get when you realise that while they are giving you free labour, you are helping them find a purpose that enriches their life. What a win-win. Life is good.

Enjoy building your best volunteer team!

Read more about Lucy’s experiences with volunteers and team building in her memoir, Get the Girls Out.

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