What Can Nonprofit Leaders Do to Keep Volunteers and Employees Engaged?

I’ve heard from numerous nonprofit professionals and volunteers in response to my recent posts on “When Passion for the Mission Isn’t Enough.” The following comments are representative of the feedback I received. I wanted to share them with you to stimulate discussion and ideas on how to better engage employees and volunteers.

One volunteer shared her current take on volunteer disengagement:

 “Volunteers are readily distracted by the demands of paying jobs, which in this day and age are onerous and leave little time for charity. If they don’t feel appreciated, and feel like they have no power in the volunteer environment, they will bolt.”

Even nonprofits that foster an engaging workplace are concerned about operating in economic and political uncertainty. An executive director described her frustration:

“When I get together with other nonprofit executive directors, we all look at a dismal funding future, and wonder how long we can hang on. Personally, I will continue to work to do the most with what we have, as long as we are funded, but I do sense an exhaustion in my peers. While our board is wonderful about contacting legislators, I can’t help but think that they would be more engaged if we weren’t regularly threatened with a cut-off of funds.”

The challenge of striving to meet growing mission-related needs with scarce resources has long existed in the nonprofit sector. But employees, volunteers and board members have grown weary of being asked to “do more with less” and “work smarter, not harder.” Sadly, the risk of burnout is greater than ever.

How Are You Coping?

We can all dream of finding a magic lamp with a genie who can take care of funding and resource issues (if only!). Seriously though, how are your dealing with the situation?

I welcome your ideas on what works to keep your volunteers and employees engaged these days.

4 Comments

  • Sybil Stershic December 7, 2011 Reply

    Anita, thanks for sharing! This is a wonderful example of how volunteer goals differ, and how they can be addressed.

  • Anita Lichman December 7, 2011 Reply

    One of the main things I have heard from volunteers over the years is to offer a variety of opportunities. For instance, a number of highly skilled retirees wanted to do more robust volunteer work and preferred to be assigned meaningful, substantial projects that had a large impact over time. Other volunteers who had less time and wanted to be more closely connected to clients, and have more social than professional needs met through volunteering asked for less substantial tasks and more “face to face” time “helping people”. The lesson = match between skills and interests with opportunities matters for volunteers.
    The way this can addressed in a quality volunteer program is to do an assessment of each new volunteer. The assessment will allow nonprofit leaders to have an understanding of the resources the volunteer brings AND a clear idea what will make for a satisfying volunteer experience (the assessment might literally ask “How will you know this is a satisfying volunteer placement”?). In addition to the assessment, opportunities should be clearly defined, cataloged by skills, time commitment, and outcomes for the volunteer AND program.
    I am sure this is not news – but maybe it can be useful to share nonetheless?!
    Anita Lichman, LCSW
    Director of Business Operations
    Mid-Atlantic Network of Youth and Family Services

  • Sybil Stershic December 6, 2011 Reply

    Great advice, Elaine. I’d add that nonprofit leaders include their employees and key volunteers in discussions on sustainability.

  • Elaine_Fogel December 6, 2011 Reply

    Sybil, I believe that nonprofits are in a new reality – one in which they need to strategize differently. It’s actually been a long time in the making, so tackling this now is reactive.
    Consolidate. That’s been my buzzword since 2004. Reduce doing things that are nice to do, but not necessarily crucial to do. Take time to look at new opportunities – for collaboration, changing programs and services, diverse revenue-generating streams. Ensure that you have revenue put aside for innovation.
    Once the threat of sustainability is out of the equation, then all stakeholders can be more engaged as they look towards the future and not doing things the way they’ve always been done.
    Visit me anytime at Totally Uncorked on Marketing http://elainefogel.net.

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