5 Techniques to Build Strong Volunteer Teams

I’m a collaboration junkie.

And the most important ingredient in pulling off great collaboration, I’ve learned, is to get the right players at the table.

Unfortunately, for those of us spearheading projects, it’s not always easy to lure people to invest in our causes. And it’s even more challenging to not only get them to perform well but to stick with us over time.

Especially if they’re volunteers.

Yet some organizations crush it in this department year after year. Take the Salvation Army, for instance. They report 3.5 million active volunteers.

Million.

Kind of makes those of us struggling to build teams of 20 or 30 want to smash our heads against the office wall, ay?

What is their secret? We wonder. And if we do whatever it is they’re doing, will we be drowning in volunteers too?

After years of leading teams and training to lead teams, here are some of my thoughts on that question:

Some of the heaviest hitters in volunteer-powered organizations, like the Salvation Army, Red Cross, and United Way, have built reputation and layers of systems that only come over decades of time.

The Salvation Army, for example, was founded in 1865–i.e. the year the Civil War ended.

Math check? That was a while ago.

Over those years, the Salvation Army has developed a nationally recognized brand that has delivered a consistent product/service over multiple generations. And let’s not forget, they have had the time to develop branches around the nation that share the task of recruiting and developing volunteers.

Meaning...If your organization has been around less than 150 years and is based in one location, you might need to pick a different point of comparison. Talk to groups who are successful with volunteers whose organizations are closer to the age of your group. Then, don’t do yourself the disservice of imagining they achieved success overnight. Trace their journey to gaining credibility and larger networks over their history. You’ll likely find that they experienced the struggle that you’re experiencing at that stage in their history.

Warning: This might result in a lesson in sucking it up and paying your dues.

But that reality check isn’t meant to kill your ambition to be everything you can, no matter what stage you’re in.

There are some things you CAN learn from these volunteer powerhouses. Many of the biggest organizations, for instance, have boiled “volunteerism” to a research-based science of best practices.

Here are a few examples:

1. Use recruitment as a screening phase to find out what volunteers’ biggest passions are and place them accordingly.

2. Commit to be in personal communication with volunteers, even in their time off.

3. Build formal and informal recognition into your organizational culture.

4. Emphasize the impact of volunteers and share that impact in detail.

5. Invest in developing your volunteers as leaders rather than just motivating them to execute your specific tasks.

Even though research has identified proven best practices like these, studies show that few organizations do what it takes to achieve real collaboration. Under-staffed and under-funded, administrators’ time is dominated by knocking out tasks, and “expendables” like nurturing ownership in their volunteer base get bumped to the bottom shelf.

Their inability to make time for habits that would grow their organization slowly cripples it in intangible ways that are hard to measure.

Research shows only 67% of organizations report they regularly communicate with volunteers. And a mere 45% do more than just a brief conversational screening before placing volunteers in positions.

Only 35% report making time for volunteer recognition. A still lower 30% study and report back the impact of volunteer work. And a sad 25% offer training or development.

(from Volunteer Management Practices and Retention of Volunteers, The Urban Institute)

Here’s how those percentages pan out into reality:

Between September 2009 and September 2010, about 62.8 million people volunteered for an organization at least once.

Some of them volunteered again and again.

The difference between the organizations that got people to volunteer once and the organizations that got volunteers to come back many times and recruit their friends is A. Reputation/Time and B. Best practices.  

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Sarah Cunningham
Sarah is the author of "Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation," "Picking Dandelions" and her newest title, "The Well Balanced World Changer."