How many hours do you spend trying to wrangle your volunteers to do what they said they’d do? And what happens when they don’t?
On a recent coaching call, a board member said that he hadn’t made the donor calls he had promised to make a month earlier. And in that moment, I was reminded of the huge challenge of working with volunteers who don’t follow through.
Not only does the work assigned to them remain undone, but all of the things that would follow from that work are stalled.
The Board Member Who Didn’t Follow Through
Three board members divide a list of twelve donors and agree to contact each of them to tell them about the planning process for a new building and invite them to a small meeting with the ED scheduled for the following month.
Two board members do their jobs. But Bill, who has four important donors on his list, doesn’t. He just lets it slide.
After a week, you email Bill to check on his progress. He doesn’t respond to your email. You wait a couple of days and email him again. Again, no response. So you call his cell phone and leave a message.
Hi Bill, I’m checking on your progress with the four people you were going to contact. Give me a call back.
And yes, you guessed it, no call back.
Undone Work Has Consequences
Let’s look at the consequences of Bill’s behavior.
- Days are slipping by and the four donors Bill was to contact haven’t been reached. Now the meeting they were being invited to is only a week away.
- Bill knows full well that he hasn’t done his job. He’s avoiding you and you wonder if he’s going to come to the next board meeting.
- You don’t know if you should reassign Bill’s people or not.
- An unspoken rift grows between you and the more responsible board members and Bill.
- The board members who have done their assignments feel undermined.
- You’ve wasted your valuable time trying to get Bill to do his tasks.
This is a common volunteer story – particularly when it comes to fundraising.
And as you can see, the consequences of Bill’s lack of follow-through spread far beyond his four un-made calls.
I’ve done some research about the ways to hold volunteers accountable. Here are seven essential strategies.
Seven Strategies for Making Volunteers More Effective
1. Recruit carefully.
Select people who have experience to do the work and a zest for it. When you invite a volunteer to take on a task, make sure it’s something they are able (and willing) to do.
Don’t say, “Don’t worry Bill, just join the committee.”
Do say, “Bill, this job is going to require that you contact donors. Are you comfortable doing that? If not, it’s probably not the right fit for you.”
2. Set clear expectations.
When you recruit a volunteer for a job, spell out what it’s going to take. Be as clear and specific as possible. Discuss the time commitment, the work that will be required, and the importance of follow through.
Don’t say, “Oh Bill, it’s just a little task force. We won’t ask you to do much.”
Do say, “Bill, this task force will meet 4 times over the next two months. Your roles will be to help create a plan and then to get in touch with people you know to introduce them to our project.”
(Or whatever the expectations are.)
3. Treat volunteers like staff.
Your cause is too important to be put in the hands of volunteers. Right from the beginning, treat your volunteers as though they were staff. Highlight the importance of results and responsibility.
Don’t say, “Bill, I so appreciate that your time is tight and that you are just a volunteer.”
Do say, “Bill, we do our level best to use everyone’s time well. We expect both staff and volunteers to do their work promptly and efficiently. That way we can accomplish great things together.”
4. Hold volunteers accountable.
Establish tasks and timetables for volunteers and then provide opportunities for reporting progress. Make sure that everyone who serves on your committees sees the progress reports.
Don’t say, “Bill, get this done in the next couple of weeks if you can.”
Do say, “Bill, we’ve all made a commitment to completing our calls before next Monday.”
5. Build a winning team.
Build a highly effective team of staff and volunteers. Highlight the role of each volunteer in the success of the larger goal. You are a team leader, not a boss.
Don’t say, “I’ll appreciate it if you will make these calls.”
Do say, “Together, our team has agreed to call 24 people before our next meeting in two weeks. I’ll be in touch with each of you at the end of the week to check on progress and we’ll each report our results at our next meeting.”
6. Create a supportive environment.
Notice the good things volunteers do; see and report on their successes. Also notice when they’re having trouble getting their work done and offer your help.
Don’t say nothing at all.
Do say, “Bill, I’ve heard from several of our donors how much they enjoyed speaking with you. You have a real knack for those conversations.”
Or, “Bill, it seems as though you’re having trouble making your calls. Let’s take a few minutes and make sure you’re clear about what to say.”
7. Communicate clearly.
Always be polite, but opt for being clear and direct over being nice or kicking difficult topics under the rug. If a volunteer is not able to function at the level expected, suggest that they might prefer to help in another way.
Don’t say, “Bill, I know how busy you are.”
Do say, “Bill, I appreciate how busy you are, but if you aren’t going to be able to make your calls in the next couple of days, I’ll be happy to take them over.”
You Can’t Do It All Yourself
It’s tempting to believe that volunteers aren’t worth the effort and that you can do it all yourself. In fact, more and more fundraising is being done by staff members.
But if you get the right people on your campaign bus and create a culture in which capable volunteers function well, you will boost the potential of your fundraising way beyond anything you could do yourself.