Engaging Volunteers Through Building Relationships – Sarah Harbaugh

Getting and keeping good volunteers isn’t easy. Once they walk thru our doors, I have to do everything possible to keep them engaged and coming back. Generally, I like to start with the history of the program and explain the need we are filling. This helps keep the logistics grounded in service. If you work with volunteers, you have probably heard of the basics of managing volunteers; recruit, train, supervise, evaluate.

But a structured system of ‘volunteer management’ isn’t what is going to keep volunteers coming back. People volunteer for a myriad of reasons, but three common motivations are; volunteers want to feel ownership over a project, they want to learn a new skill or talent, and/or they want to feel connected to other people.

I could talk about letting volunteers take ownership of small decisions like what order the food should be bagged in, or about asking volunteers to help solve problems, or by matching program needs with their desires. But you’re smart and already know that.

Allowing volunteers, especially first-timers, to interact with patrons and to feel what it’s like to give a meal to the hungry or a hat to the cold is vital to getting them emotionally invested. Yes, I love to serve meals myself, but I am already invested in the programs we run. A first-time volunteer isn’t. I know that transformative power of service and want to give volunteers that same experience so that they will continue to come and volunteer. I need their help! I can’t run the programing alone and I need volunteers to get things accomplished. If I can encourage them to form relationships with our patrons, they will become more invested in the program.

The key is to spend time in service with the volunteers. That’s how I am able to learn more about them – what makes them tick and why they are volunteering. Get invested in their lives; let them get invested in yours as well. By being thoughtful about building relationships with volunteers, you can create a sense of both trust and belonging. This enables volunteers to serve your organization and clients in a better, more efficient way.

Numerous times I have had volunteers suggest new ways to streamline the work that we do, not only is this valuable information but it helps all of us, employees and volunteers, provide better service. Because I was thoughtful about creating a space where they and their ideas were welcomed, they felt safe to suggest something they saw as in need of improvement.

Volunteers can be your best advocates; they see the good work your organization does and they care about your mission. By telling their friends and family about the change they affect with your organization, they are advertising for you.

Sarah Harbaugh is a Program Coordinator at the MGR Foundation, mgrf.org. She coordinates the CareTeam, dedicated to alleviating the effects of poverty through engaged and innovative service, and WillPower, teen pregnancy prevention program that utilizes peer theatre, supported by sexual education and parental involvement, to encourage students to think critically about their sexual and reproductive choices.

This entry was posted in Leadership & Management, Nonprofit Administration, Service and Program Development. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Engaging Volunteers Through Building Relationships – Sarah Harbaugh

  1. Rachel G. says:

    Great post Sarah! At my organization as well, making a connection with those that we serve tends to be the biggest motivating factor in engaging a volunteer and turning them into a dedicated advocate. Sometimes though, it takes a few months of volunteering before they will have a meaningful interaction with one of our guests. In the meantime I’ve found it helps to pair them with a more seasoned volunteer; someone who can share stories of the positive relationships they’ve formed here and encourage a new volunteer to stick with it when the first couple of shifts might be filled with only cleaning and organizing tasks.

  2. Dana Bright says:

    Sarah, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts. I think you made a particularly great point by saying that volunteers can often be the best advocates for a program and/or organization. At my workplace, we like to call them ambassadors. Often our volunteers are also consumers of our programs and services, which can put them in an even better position to spread the word about what we’re doing. I find it very meaningful when we are able to equip volunteers with the tools and information and support they need to be spokespeople for my organization among their peers.

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