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Give Volunteers a Transformational Experience

This is National Volunteer Week. We hope you are saying “thank you” this week to your board members, event committee members, front-line volunteers, and all the others who give of their own time to serve your organization.

We’ve worked with thousands of volunteers over our careers. At Greenpeace US, we had Mr. Bates who came once a week like clockwork for more than a decade to volunteer in the finance office. We know guild members at the Boulder-based Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) who have been giving their time to the annual “Celebration” fundraising event for many years running. And we’ve worked with talented, devoted board members that take time from work and family to be at meetings, retreats, and events.

How do you inspire this kind of devotion? Doing great work helps. But, really, the best volunteer experiences are carefully cultivated by the organizations that know how connect volunteers with the great work.

Recently I came across this video in a blog from America’s Charities that explores the idea of “transactional to transformational” volunteerism. I really liked this idea because I’ve been in volunteer situations that felt very much like a transaction. I volunteered my time to cook or paint or put packages of supplies together and that was it. I felt good because I gave of my time, but it felt like I did the task and that was it.

In contrast, I’ve also been in volunteer situations where I was changed or transformed by the experience. It made me see things differently and it inspired me to be an ambassador for the work of the organization.

What made the difference? What makes volunteer service transformational?

Here are five things that have moved my volunteer experiences from transactional to transformational:

Learning about the issues: Generally, I know something about the organization I am volunteering for, but not the whole picture. What has made volunteering valuable for me is to learn about the challenges the organization faces and how they believe their work can help.

To do: Hold briefings for volunteers so that they can become familiar with the issues and landscape of your work.

Feeling connected the task to the mission: Whether I am a board member on the fundraising committee or painting the inside of a food bank, it helps to know how the task I’ve been assigned is connected to the mission of the organization.

 To do: Ensure that people are fully informed about the work they are being asked to do and why it’s important for the mission of your organization.

 Meeting staff and other volunteers: This is often one of best benefits of all for volunteering. I’ve met some of my very favorite people ever through volunteering on boards and on the front lines.

To do: Make it easy for people to get to know each other. Consider having a circle of introductions before you get started. Name tags and pairing people in teams can help, too.

Feeling appreciated: This is critical for any volunteer. Speaking for myself, I don’t want anything extravagant or over-the-top, but I very much like to hear that the work I’ve done actually needs doing.

To do:  Thank your volunteers as often as you would your donors and think about creative ways to circle back and let them know how their work made a difference.

Wanting to volunteer again: My experience is that often the first volunteer experience with an organization can be a little intimidating and even a little awkward.  Providing opportunities for repeat experience can deepen the volunteer connection.

To do:  Keep track of your volunteers like you do your donors. If they haven’t come back, drop them a line to let them know you miss them.

Volunteers are critical to almost every nonprofit organization. Not only do they serve as a resource for operations and governance, but they also are more likely to give money and advocate for an organization, especially when they are engaged and inspired.

So, on this National Volunteer Week, consider how to move your volunteer experience from transactional to transformational. It’s a win-win for sure!

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