Some years ago when I was volunteering on a board, the chairperson turned to me at a meeting and whispered, “I’ve given up way too much of my time for this organization.” I was surprised to hear her say that because she was one of our most dedicated members. After all, she was the one who recruited me to serve.
I decided later that she was going through volunteer burnout, which happens when organizations demand too much of too few people. The year after she stepped down as our chair, she virtually disappeared. I would see her occasionally at events but only briefly. Then, poof, she was gone for good.
I’ve thought many times about what makes volunteers stick around after their terms are up, serving in various capacities year after year. Or what prompts them to drop out completely, sometimes from exhaustion or frustration, or both.
From homeless shelters and food banks to small-town symphonies and little league teams, our world is a better place to live because of volunteer organizations. Yet, sadly, many of these beneficent institutions are poorly managed. Sometimes they are so badly run that they drive away even the most committed volunteers.
If you want your volunteers—or your paid employees—to stick around, here are seven things I have learned over the years not to do:
- Keep your vision a secret. For some organizations, it’s crystal clear why they exist. It’s very easy to see how their mission is impacting people’s lives. Other groups seem to be holding on to the vestiges of a forgotten era. These groups have no clear purpose and are simply marking time. Does your organization have a reason to exist? Make sure volunteers understand they are there to further the mission, not to advance their own agenda or pad their resume.
- Provide lousy leadership. Can you blame a volunteer for quitting if everything is disorganized, meetings last until midnight or an ineffective leader won’t step aside? Volunteers aren’t paid, so we really can’t expect much of them, can we? Besides, he goes off the board next year, so why rock the boat? This kind of thinking is dangerous. Developing leaders and holding them accountable is probably the single most important thing an organization can do—and the biggest reason why volunteers leave if good leadership is missing.
- Poorly train your people. Just leave them in the dark. They’ll learn soon enough. Don’t pass along any records or notes. Don’t develop any training materials or do any kind of orientation. Onboarding? What’s that? Let them learn through osmosis like the rest of us.
- Don’t set clear expectations. I hate to say it, but I have served on committees where I have absolutely no responsibilities. I attend meetings, join in the discussion and vote, but that’s about it. No one has ever said, “Jay, this is what we expect from our members. If you don’t think you can perform these duties, then we suggest that you not serve.” Give your volunteers goals and assignments. Believe me, they will perform better and derive more satisfaction than if you don’t ask them to do anything at all.
- Work your best volunteers to death. Volunteer burnout occurs when organizations rely too heavily on just a few volunteers or major responsibilities are consolidated into a handful of powerful positions. Often the unlucky person who has agreed to take on a top job is burdened with a huge amount of administrative work. Look for ways to lighten the load and redistribute work to other members who are willing to help.
- Ignore the succession plan. Every organization should have a clear and transparent process for electing or appointing new officers. If you have any say in succession planning, make sure your leaders have term limits. A person who’s allowed continue as chairman for 30 years may think that he’s providing a lifetime of service, but it also means a lot of other people never got a chance to serve. A whole generation of future leaders got shut out. Succession planning is one part continuity and one part new blood. Don’t forget the new blood part.
- Don’t thank your volunteers. While it’s true that serving is its own reward, many volunteer jobs are pretty thankless. Take the time to recognize volunteers for all they do. Make people feel good about their volunteer work.