Christina 18 Dec 2020 | 3 min read

How to: Encourage Your Dream Volunteer Team

Here we are in the fourth article in our series. We have already discussed how to IDENTIFY, RECRUIT, and TRAIN your dream team. Now, we come to the section that seems to cause the most stress for volunteer managers without their realizing it. This secret stressor is volunteer retention. And other than recruitment, it is one of the problems nonprofits find the most overwhelming. You have your dream volunteers. How do you keep them? 

A certain amount of volunteer turnover is to be expected as people move, situations change, and life happens. In the US volunteer retention tends to be between 52% – 75% (depending on the state). 

According to the Urban Institute, nonprofits who are interested in increasing retention should focus on recognizing volunteers, offering TRAINING, and professional development (more on that in our next article). At Volunteer U, we call the recognizing process ENCOURAGEMENT. 

Below are three practical steps to ENCOURAGE your team. 

1. Be intentional

It’s easy to say you want to be better at showing appreciation to your team. It’s another thing to actively do it. We talked about this in our article on how to TRAIN your team, and it applies here too. What gets written down gets done. So make a plan. Come up with a strategy to encourage your team.  

There is a reason strategic planning is discussed so regularly, it works. Research has found that businesses that go in with a formal plan see more success than those who just react to what comes up. 

Even small businesses that have a formal planning session tend to stick to their goals and succeed. 

One key aspect of strategic planning is to have ways to measure outcomes and check up on targeted goals. Encouragement planning should focus on three things. 1) How you will encourage your team, 2) When you will encourage them and, 3) How you will find out if it is working (i.e., do people feel valued by your efforts). 

It doesn’t have to be an elaborate system where you pack your schedule with creative interactions and high-five everyone you pass in the hall. It can be one task on your todo list. Just one simple act can have a powerful effect. 

We once knew a CEO who wrote a personal birthday card for his team of over 300. That’s almost a card a day every year — each one with a short private message. Talk about impact! The CEO couldn’t interact with everyone every day, but he could write a quick note. It became a tradition that was part of the company culture. A tradition that every team member looked forward to on their birthday. 

Pick what works for you and make it a habit. 

Jon Acuff has a great video on empathy.

In the video, he talks about connecting with others by showing how much you care about their concerns. Acuff suggests putting a meeting reminder on your phone to prompt you to follow up on conversations. According to Acuff, 

“If you want to blow someone’s mind when they tell you something important, put it into your phone and ask about it the day after it happened.”

Jon Acuff

We can use the same technique to connect and encourage our volunteer team. Do whatever it takes. Use technology to help you remember things. Set phone alarms. Put notes on your calendar.

Set yourself a reminder to send a text or email, or to call a team member just to check-in. Use your phone to alert you when it’s time to put your plan into action. You will take the pressure off yourself to remember and still keep to your encouragement schedule. 

2. Focus on the ONE

We love the Andy Stanley quote, “Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.” For volunteer managers with large teams, there are times you can’t physically have one-on-one conversations with everyone. But you can have one conversation. You can encourage one. 

Sometimes we get overwhelmed with the vastness of a project, so we avoid doing it at all. Mental health professionals refer to this as avoidance coping, and it can hurt your odds of achieving your goals. Focusing on one person gives us a chance to break a big project down to small targets. Don’t get overwhelmed with how big a job it is to encourage your team. Instead, focus on one or two practical things that you can do today to be an encouragement. 

3. Create a culture of celebration

As your team grows it may not be realistic for you to personally encourage every member of your team. So create a culture where the team celebrates its members. 

As you build your volunteer system, you will find team members who are natural leaders. These star volunteers are the perfect army of encouragers for the rest of the team. But more about that in our next article on RESOURCING. 



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