Cowritten with Justus Baumann. I would like to thank Cecilia Saura Drago, Colin Bested and Konrad Seifert for their feedback.
Who should read this: people working with volunteers. The content might also be applicable to people who work with interns.
Estimated reading time: 7 min
The intention of this post is to support Effective Altruists who coordinate volunteers by providing a practical guide. To limit the scope of this post I have chosen to only focus on elements that contribute to volunteer retention as this seems to be the issue that most people struggle with. When there is enough interest I could write a similar guide for volunteer recruitment.
The content is based on my experience as an advisor for volunteer organizations and Justus’s experience as a volunteer manager at the Happier Lives Institute, combined with the input of several people who are involved with volunteer management inside the community. It is nevertheless possible that I have missed important elements or that certain aspects are less applicable. If that is the case, please let me know so I can update the post.
- Help people to recognize the meaning and importance of their work by helping them think through why their work is meaningful. Ask specific questions and let them come up with their own reasons why their work is meaningful.
- Show appreciation, trust the people you work with and structure the work by providing reasons for your gratefulness, praising people who did great work (also in front of others) and breaking the work down into sub-tasks.
- The social environment can heavily influence the volunteer experience. Create bonds between the volunteers and a positive social environment. If feasible, organize regular volunteer co-working sessions, facilitate peer-accountability and celebrate successes together. Some people, however, prefer to work by themselves.
- Coordination can easily consume a lot of time. Be strategic about it and try to create efficient systems by creating clear documentation, teaming people up and delegating some of the coordination.
Elements that contribute to volunteer retention
People usually volunteer their time because they get something in return. When working with volunteers it can, therefore, help to focus on the reciprocity of the volunteer - organization relation. How can you help your volunteers? What are they looking for in their volunteer work and what do they need?
An easy way to support the volunteer could be, if you are in an expert position relative to the volunteer, sharing valuable literature and intros with (not heavily time-constrained) contacts in your network.
Nevertheless, it can also be beneficial to focus on the volunteer’s contribution to the organization, in order to assess their fit. Sometimes it is better to terminate the volunteering. Ask: what does the volunteer add to the organization and the bigger picture? How do they help you?
By answering these questions you can focus on elements that contribute to the motivation of your specific (group of) volunteers. For the volunteers, these questions can help with recognizing the meaning of their work and evaluating whether working with you is currently the best use of their time.
For most people, perceiving one’s work as meaningful is probably the number one factor for long-term motivation. You can help others to see the meaning of their work by:
- Letting people come up with reasons why their work is meaningful.
Ask questions and let people come up with their own reasons. Usually, it works better to use indirect questions, for example: what do you hope this report that you are working on can achieve?
- Showing the larger context.
Help people explore the context of what they are doing by asking questions. Investigate their personal and the organizational context. Try to create tangible examples rather than abstract goals.
Appreciation & Trust
Apart from meaning, feeling valued, and recognized is an important motivator for most people. You can do this by:
- Showing gratitude more often than might feel intuitively appropriate, but do it genuinely and give reasons for your appreciation.
- Trusting your volunteers; their capability, their motivation, and their intentions.
Try to signal frequently that you trust the people on your team. If somebody makes a mistake (e.g. does not respect a deadline), explore together what was going wrong and make a plan to prevent it from happening in the future.
- If you check somebody’s work (which is recommended for important tasks), try to communicate in a way that signals trust rather than control. For example: “I’m interested in the work you do and I think you have done good work, yet everyone can make mistakes so I believe it will be helpful if I take a look.”
- Give guidance, but balance it with autonomy. In general, when the stakes are high: check and approve. When the stakes are low: let people decide independently and repair if something goes wrong. Giving autonomy on low-stake decisions will usually increase work satisfaction.
- Give detailed feedback and show that you read other’s work. By giving feedback you can show that people’s work is important to you, and it is an excellent opportunity to show appreciation.
- Provide some visibility to the work of the volunteers, for example by a story on the website or the social media.
Structure & Direction
The feeling of ‘being stuck’ can be a major contributor to volunteer dissatisfaction. Breaking down the work into subtasks can help to create a sense of constant progress. It is also important to prevent confusion, as this is a barrier to continue their work for many people. When they are confused, people sometimes even assume that they are not needed anymore. You can create structure and direction by:
- Creating a challenge from the work that needs to be done, with a clear deadline.
- Breaking tasks down into smaller sub-tasks.
- Summarising what has been achieved and celebrating successes.
- Creating clear work instructions that are easy to find and to follow.
- Having a central person or a mentor that states clearly that they can be approached for questions.
For most people (depending on their personality) the team is an important determinant for their volunteer experience, and also for the likelihood of continuing with their work. You can create a good team spirit by:
- Taking time for chats. Show people that you care about them, and not only their work, and get to know each other a bit.
- Letting people work together, in teams, or during co-working sessions. This has the additional benefit that people know what the other people are working on (but keep in mind that some introverts might prefer to work alone). If it is not possible to meet in person, some people have good experiences with an online co-working video channel, or check-ins on an internal chat platform.
- Creating a learning community. Learning can be a great motivator for people, and one of the primary reasons why they contribute to your project. Connect people around common learning goals, let them share with the group what they have learned, share relevant resources, and stimulate intellectual discussions.
- Focusing on connections between the volunteers, with the additional benefit that if the central coordinator leaves, the social structure doesn’t break apart.
Think about what kind of organizational culture you have, and what kind of culture you would like. You can create the desired culture by:
- Setting the right norms and enacting them. For example by reinforcing CEAs guiding principles.
- Leading by example and regularly evaluating your own behavior.
- Reflecting on the incentive structures in the organization, the unwritten rules, and informal relations.
- Incentivizing certain acts, for example by celebrating them publicly.
A short note on coordination
As this EA forum post outlines, volunteering is not free. One of the reasons that volunteering might not be an effective use of the organization’s or a volunteer’s time is the coordination that’s required. Therefore I would like to finish this post with a few tips that could reduce coordination time. For example by:
- Creating a list with clear tasks that people can do. You can send this to new volunteers, or make it public for existing volunteers so they do not need to ask you what they could do next.
- Creating informative and clear reference documents that people can use independently (and that everybody knows where to find). The goal of the resources is that people know as precisely as possible what they are expected to do, and how to do it.
- Teaming people up, so they can mentor each other, support each other, and can give feedback to each other.
- Handing over some of the coordination to dedicated long-term volunteers. This will not only free up more of your time but will also allow volunteer development. As peer-coaches they are often also more familiar with the common difficulties less experienced volunteers are facing.
The post above comes from the personal experiences of Justus and myself, but for the people who prefer a more academic approach, I recommend this literature review on volunteer management.
Thanks for this post.
Another post on this general topic which readers might also find interesting is Case Study: Volunteer Research and Management at ALLFED. (I didn't write that post and haven't worked with ALLFED, but what I've heard about their volunteer program sounds impressive to me.)
Thanks for this! I’ve done a bit of volunteering and these suggestions seem very accurate and applicable. I’ll refer to this if I work with a volunteer program again.
Do you have any thoughts on when organizations benefit most from working with volunteers? When is it a bad idea, what makes the difference?
Thank you for your comment, great to hear that these suggestions seem to be helpful.
And great questions. I don't have a definitive answer (I might miss some things and the situation can differ a lot between organisations) but I can share some thoughts. Your second question is easier to answer, so I will start with that one.
I think that it's a bad idea to work with volunteers if:
Ok, so when do organisations benefit the most from working with volunteers? I think this question is more complex than the former and depends on several factors. In general I think two components are important: 1. the nature of the work and 2. the available volunteers. If the organisation's work is not too specialised and there are enough people who fit with your organisation (and are willing to donate their time), then an organisation can benefit from working with volunteers. Otherwise, I think an organisation will struggle and it can become (very) hard to have an impact while working with volunteers.
1. The nature of the work.
Usually volunteers can be very skilled, but they do not have much time to become specialised. There are of course exceptions, but generally volunteers can not spend too much time on their work, therefore getting to know the specific organisation (and the specific work) less well than a staff member. So if your organisation's work needs a lot of inside knowledge, or is specific, it will be harder to work with volunteers. Of course, volunteers can be trained, but as they tend to spend less time on the job (and the turn-over is sometimes high), it can make the volunteer work so costly that it's not efficient anymore (for these costs, the organisation can better hire 1 person full-time and train him/her/them). Another factor that plays a role is how easily the work can be coordinated and managed, as all these are costs as well.
As a rule of thumb I think for short-term volunteering the work should be easy and straight forward (if you give somebody a description of the work, they must be able to carry it out without further instructions). For tasks that take longer, the work should contribute towards volunteer satisfaction. That is easier if the work can be carried out autonomous, is flexible, the volunteer is responsible for the whole process, and the work is challenging. If the organisation's work does not have any of these characteristics I assume it could be hard to retain your volunteers.
2. The available volunteers.
Your question was about when organisations benefit most from working with volunteers, but I think that this question can not be separated from the volunteers themselves. Partly because volunteers have to fit with your organisation, partly because volunteers who donate their time to one organisation, can not do that for another organisation (what is the best way to distribute this resource in the community?), and partly because if there are no qualified people to volunteer, the organisation can not have their intended impact. And as an organisation usually needs more volunteers to carry out the same work as one paid employee (because of the time availability), and it can be hard to find reliable, high-quality volunteers, an organisation can be easily bottlenecked by a lack of volunteers (some people say that good volunteers are power-law distributed).
Another factor is if the volunteering is the best use of the volunteer's time. Somebody could not only donate their time to another (more effective?) organisation, but also use their time to e.g. skill-up or earn to give. For effective volunteering that means that volunteers often volunteer to learn something, improve a skill, or test out a career option. If your organisation can offer an opportunity for people to do one of these, it could be encouraged (and positive for the community) to create volunteer opportunities. But if the organisation's work provides an opportunity that people are not looking for, it can be really hard to fill your positions.
Thanks Naomi for this post! I think there's some good advice here. I think the advice would be more persuasive though and would stick with me more if you cited examples from your personal experiences.
I think you could cite anonymous examples (or to check with the volunteers if they're willing to have you put potentially de-anonymizing details). It would be good to know of stories of volunteers feeling really good because of the advice here, or feeling really bad because this advice wasn't implemented yet at the time. Just wanted to give this feedback!
Thank you for the feedback, I hadn't included examples indeed because of the potential personal details, but I like the suggestion to make them anonymous.
Anecdotally, I encountered the following example the most often*:
"Alice started to organize the global priorities reading club two months ago. The idea for the reading club started during a conversation at the monthly (online) social, where she chatted about an EA forum posts that argued in favor of more global priorities research. Bob mentioned that EA FictitiousExample should do something related to global priorities research and Alice suggested the reading club. Because her conversation partners, Bob and Denise, were excited about the idea, Alice started organizing the club.
However, two months later, Alice is not that excited anymore. The first meetup of the reading club was a success: 10 people showed up and they had an interesting conversation. However, during the second meetup, only 2 people attended and both Bob and Denise had another commitment. The discussion stalled and one participant dominated the conversation with long, not necessarily related, stories. Last week, they had the third meetup and even though Bob and Denise attended and the discussion was alright, two people showed up late and during the last twenty minutes the group mainly discussed the new card game 'EA against humanity'. At the moment, Alice doesn't have inspiration for suitable articles for the reading club and started to doubt the goal of the meetups. She doesn't have much time to think about it anyway, as her exams are starting in two weeks."
I think that this is a moment when a volunteer often disengages and where certain elements might increase the likelihood of the continuation of Alice's involvement. Three things a volunteer manager could do here:
*This is a fictional example, created from a compilation of conversations I have had.