Wednesday, January 22, 2020

"Don't Waste My Time!": Keeping Volunteers Engaged

The poster you see in the picture hangs in my local Starbucks and it earns a grunt of annoyance from me every time I see it. I feel like the person who designed it has never done volunteer organizing at all! I swear to you that most volunteers have thought that quote to themselves at one point or another. Truly, I think it myself every time I attend a poorly-run meeting.

Volunteers are wonderful people. They give freely of their time to make the world a better place whether they are citizen lobbyists or soup kitchen servers. Parents who volunteer are doubly special because they take time away from swiftly-growing children for causes they believe in. Therefore, as organizers, we need to value the precious hours they give us by providing enriching and rewarding experiences! Without that, volunteers will drift away looking for the next thing that will give meaning to the work.

Here are my four best ideas for about volunteers engaged in your group:

1. Empower Your Volunteers

Don't think of your volunteers merely as minions carrying out tasks. Nobody likes to feel ordered around! Cultivate leaders by giving them full ownership of their responsibilities. Help them to see their part in your shared vision and decide the best way they can accomplish the goal themselves. In this way, teammates can share their creativity and personal strengths with one another.

This is remarkably similar to the parenting technique where you give kids the responsibility for picking up their rooms by a certain time, but don't micro-manage how it gets done. They can sing while they do it, they can clean alphabetically, they can clean by's up to them!

2. Find new activities and goals for your group
Girl Scouts make a poster for their U.S. Representative
Doing the same thing over and over gets stale. Luckily, there are infinite ways to advocate! Breathe new life into your activism by involving different kinds of people or learning skills together. If the group seems tired of just writing letters to Congress together or burned out from prepping for congressional meetings, try teaching a girl scout group to take action with you by making posters! Or, take letter writing to the next level by writing a letter to the editor for print in your local newspaper. Take your whole group out to birddog a candidate at a town hall. Creative outreach events and fundraisers to attract new supporters are also great opportunities for all sorts of memorable interactions. 

3. Celebrate the results of your work together

It's incredibly important that we specifically tell volunteers how their efforts have helped change the world or helped an individual person. RESULTS founder Sam Daley-Harris wrote in an op-ed in the South Florida Sun Sentinel about our need to know our time is well spent. He was lecturing at a university about advocacy to tackle huge world problems like climate change or global health when a student asked him: “What if we don’t have time to get involved in big issues?” Sam wrote, "I told her that if she was holding down two or three jobs just to put food on the table, I’d agree with the 'not enough time' excuse. But in a country that binges on TV shows and spends hours on Facebook, I say most people do have enough time. We just don’t have time for things we don’t think will make a difference. We’re not willing to play Don Quixote, dreaming the impossible dream, if we think we’ll wake up only to find it was a nightmare."
The Shot@Life logo is especially
easy for cupcakes!

So, find a way to help your group see the impact of their efforts! It can be as small as surprise logo cupcakes and bubbly at a meeting while discussing a legislative win and what it means for people in poverty. (Since my RESULTS team is 50% middle and high schoolers, bubbly for that group is sparkling apple cider) But when we finally got the Education for All global education bill passed after 10 years, we held a celebratory brunch to recap all our efforts and think about the ways it will transform lives. Heck, yeah, that deserved a brunch! 

4. Appreciate and recognize effort

Sometimes it's a simple "Way to go!" given in private. Other times, public recognition on social media or a heartfelt, hand-written note are better ways to show your appreciation for volunteer efforts big and small. Teresa Rugg is the Advocacy Teams Training Consultant for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. She knows that being cognizant of where volunteers are in their own life journeys and what gifts they can share in the moment is so important. She shared, “We are always careful that we celebrate all of the actions that the teammates can bring, whether they brought the salad or took down names at an event. Every single contribution is important to the team. Someone opened up their home. Someone shared a story in a lobby visit that no one else could tell. This attitude is omnipresent when I’m training teams.” 

How are you keeping your team engaged? I'd love to learn from you!