Volunteers: When Passion for the Mission Isn’t Enough

Like nonprofit employees, volunteers can also exit when they get frustrated and fed up. The reasons for disengagement are similar, and while it might seem easier for volunteers to leave a nonprofit since they’re not held to an employment contract, that doesn’t mean it’s any less painful when they’re passionate about the mission. As Sally Helgesen described, “Volunteers … work not for money but because they want to give back, make a difference, change the world. They work because they want to matter. Volunteers can, and will, quit the moment they feel undervalued.”

This would be a great place to work if it weren’t for the [expletive] volunteers!

Example #1. A nonprofit board member described frustration with an executive director’s lack of respect for volunteers. “It makes me feel that my personal contributions of time and talent are not valued, even though I am a top donor. The executive is stuck in a rut, verbally… [focusing] on perceived staff board shortfalls. Why have I stayed?… I am passionate about the organization’s mission and continue to hope that eventually… with the staff changeover, we’ll be able to use the enthusiasm and ideas [to make a difference] that the Board has proposed.”

Example #2. In response to increasing volunteer disengagement, a member-based organization set up a volunteer engagement task force comprised of volunteers and senior staff. Under the task force’s direction, a survey was conducted of current and past volunteer leaders to gain better understanding of volunteer perceptions and expectations. Resulting recommendations called for more intentional volunteer management and oversight. Staff responded by developing a volunteer philosophy and creating a volunteer leader advocacy position to implement a volunteer engagement and recognition plan – all done without volunteer input!

Volunteer Talent or Disposable Commodity?

The difference in how your volunteers are treated depends on the tone set by the person in charge. People have to matter as much as the mission.

“Eliciting superior performance from people requires making them feel as if they matter, as if they’re contributing, as if they’re making a difference. …Only an inspiring, trustworthy, respectful, and inclusive leader can attract and retain volunteers over the long run.” [Source: Sally Helgesen, “Why Mattering Matters,” Shine a Light, Leader to Leader Institute, 2005]


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