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Thanking the Thankless: Creating Repeat Volunteers

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Adam Kuczynski
January 28, 2020

When it comes to volunteerism, the immediate question often revolves around just how to attract the initial bunch. This is undoubtedly true and for good reason. However, just as important (for slightly differing rationales), is how to retain these folks and create repeat-volunteers. Creating and tapping a group of ready-to-go volunteers saves time and energy for everyone involved. It cuts down on the stress of recruitment and shares the burden of action amongst the volunteers. Yet, volunteer retention is often a blip on the radar of most practitioners, and is nearly never mentioned in the same breath as employee-retention.

Logistically, this makes sense…to a point. An employee represents an investment by the organization. There are certain duties and responsibilities that require the added concern, detail and attention. If an employee does well, there is the promise for potential benefit. Likewise, if the employee does not perform well, there is a potential for benefit loss. It should come as no surprise when practitioners at these agencies, whether city departments or charities, struggle to motivate or interact with this, “Other,” group that receives no compensation. Essentially, everything they know about motivation (for right or wrong) is thrown out the window. So, then how does one turn a volunteer into a repeat-volunteer? It starts with two words.

“Thank you.”

 It really is that simple. We heard this adage as children, but somehow, it slipped away as we grew into adults. Especially adults within the practicing public sector. When it comes to employees who receive other compensation, this slip may be overlooked. When it comes to a volunteer, though, the expression of gratitude is powerful and poignant.

As a former elected city councilperson, nonprofit employee and someone who is now pursuing a Ph.D. studying volunteerism, I have seen this firsthand and from all sides. I benefitted from someone’s volunteerism; and volunteered to help others. I have read studies about the importance of volunteer motivation and, in fact, I am currently researching that very topic.

Considering all that, and despite the various avenues and nuances when dealing with volunteers, one of the simplest pieces of advice I can give a practicing public administrator, city manager, charity manager or supervisor: Train your front-line supervisors/organizers (and yourself) to express gratitude verbally to the volunteers around them.

Of course, this articulation of thanks needs to be a realistic and enduring expression. It cannot be faked. Volunteers will either see right through it and it will have no effect, or worse—it can have the opposite effect if they believe they are being patronized.

I suggest moving past the classic volunteer, “Thank you,” that comes in the form of general recognition, because it lacks the connection to create repeat-volunteers. For instance, organizations often thank their volunteers en masse with dinners or luncheons. Municipalities across the country give out resolutions during meetings to local citizens for efforts benefitting the community. Some larger cities take it to the next level and offer, “Grander,” recognition.

New York City, for example, allows for organizations to nominate volunteers to be recognized with a certificate signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Even the White House offers similar programs to get a document from President Donald Trump.

Yet, it is fairly obvious that President Trump and Mayor de Blasio are not actively following the actions of any given volunteer helping out in food pantry. It may not even be a stretch to say that every member on a city council knows the extraordinary efforts of local volunteers. Here is a pro tip for practitioners coming from a former practitioner: The volunteers know this, too.

As a relatively new councilman, I attempted to get to know the individuals honored at the council meetings. One individual in particular dedicated the greater part of his life to helping the youth of the city through various channels. It was really quite impressive. If there was a food drive, he was there. If there was a literacy program, he was there. If there was an anti-crime initiative, he was there. I visited him at one of his programs and discussed a multitude of topics, but two points stood out.

First, he told me it was nice to be recognized at a meeting, but much nicer to have someone from the meeting come and thank him personally. Second, he told me our city had at least a dozen citizens like himself; he just had the perseverance to keep volunteering despite a lack of gratitude.

Volunteer burn-out is real, and an antidote can be a simple act of gratitude. If practiced correctly, burn-out will fade, volunteer retention will grow and the community will benefit.

Author: Adam Kuczynski, MPA, is currently completing his Ph.D. in Public Administration at Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration. Adam has served in local government, and worked as a journalist and director of communications at a nonprofit. He focuses primarily on volunteerism and philanthropy, but also on transparency, administration, and law. He may be reached at [email protected]. Twitter: @Adam_Kuz 

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