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10 Ways to Build a Strong Volunteer-Staff Relationship

Edward Everett Hale’s quote really gets to the heart of why I volunteer. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will do something for my community, especially where I can be of service considering my skill set. I have been thinking a great deal lately about volunteers; because I have played both volunteer and staff roles for over a decade. I have served as a volunteer in many capacities, as well as led groups of volunteers as a staff member. My myriad of experiences on either side of the coin has made one thing clear – the success of a volunteer service endeavor rests on the strength of the volunteer-staff relationship. That is to say, neither the volunteer nor the staff member is solely responsible for the outcome. Rather, the effort both put into the relationship, to understand each other's needs and capacities, is what dictates success or failure.

Below are my 5 tips for the volunteer, and my 5 tips for the staff member, to help build a successful relationship.

Be a Volunteer Star

1. Clearly articulate your abilities, time availability, and communication preferences to the staff member. Make sure they understand your limitations, as well as your abilities (e.g. no meetings on Monday from 6-7:30pm because of my daughter’s swim practice!).

2. Don’t say “yes” to everything you are asked to do because you are afraid to let the organization down. You can only do so much. Don’t promise something you won’t be able to follow through with. Staff will appreciate your polite “no” now, more than they will appreciate having to scramble at the last minute to get the task done.

3. Give honest and constructive feedback – especially about the framework of volunteering. For example, did you really wish your volunteer experience kicked-off with a tour of the organization? Let the staff know! Staff are always looking to improve the volunteer experience.

4. Be proactive. See an area of need you could help with but haven’t been asked to yet? Then volunteer to take it on! Or perhaps you took #3 to heart and have a suggestion to make the organization better? Well, do one better than just being constructive, spearhead that change!

5. Remember, the staff are people just like you. With families, hobbies, and – probably – volunteer work of their own. Be cognizant that while 9pm might be the best time for you to send an email as a volunteer, you might not get a response until regular business hours the next day. Everyone has a right to a work-life balance!

Be a Stellar Volunteer Manager

1. Clearly articulate what the volunteer role requires including time and specific skills. Sometimes this can be hard. For example, as a fundraising organization, we ask all of our volunteers to give a personal gift. Size of the gift does not matter, but you are expected to give a gift annually. We can’t ask others for gifts if our own volunteers don’t give! I let everyone know this expectation in writing before they become a volunteer. Take time to really think through what you need from your volunteers. You can even write a volunteer job description or expectation list, and share it with potential volunteers.

2. When asking a volunteer to perform a specific task, be clear about the expected deliverables, timeline, and the impact the task will have on the organization. Volunteers want you to quantify how their time is making a difference. So, put their work, even menial work, into context.

3. Be flexible. Not all volunteers are the same. Some love email. Some want to chat on the phone. Some love drudge work they can do at home after their kids go to bed. Some want to be front and center in the spotlight. Try to adjust your approach to maximize whatever your volunteer’s particular combination of personality, skills, and availability are. 

4. Say thank you – often. And with enthusiasm. Write them notes. Say it in person. Share it on social media. Impact made and acknowledgment given are the ways in which you compensate a volunteer.

5. Remember your volunteers are people just like you, with jobs, families, and hobbies. Respect their time constraints. Everyone has a right to a work-volunteer-life balance! 

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