I’ve worked for nonprofits most of my career which has afforded me a lot of experience with volunteering from a staff perspective. That experience taught me how critical volunteers are to an organization’s success, how wonderful great volunteers are to work with, and how challenging it is when the relationship between volunteers and staff gets strained.
Recently, I started helping out in the WordPress.com forums as an actual volunteer. It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve met great people and it gives me a chance to give back to the WordPress community. It has also given me a bit more insight into why some volunteer experiences are amazing for both the volunteers and the organization, and others–well not so much.
Volunteering is ultimately a gift. Yes, theatre ushers see the show for free, animal shelter volunteers sometimes get discount vet care for their own animals, or have adoption fees waived. Forum volunteers get experience and maybe a new client or two. Those perks are important, and can help volunteers feel appreciated, but ONLY if they are treated as gifts, not as payment.
Volunteers choose to serve because they believe in the mission of the organization, and want to do their part to make sure the project succeeds. When a volunteer manager gives any indication that they believe they are paying their volunteers with perks the relationship changes in a fundamentally negative way. If the perks a volunteer receives are payment, then their work is no longer a gift– it’s a transactional exchange. If the time and effort spent helping your organization is “paid in full” with a free coffee mug, or even a $30 theatre ticket, then it’s clear the work is not valued at all.
Once volunteers stop feeling valued, bad things happen. The best case scenario is they stop volunteering. They are suddenly too busy, or work gets in the way, or you just stop hearing from them. The other options are worse. A volunteer may keep showing up, but will consciously or subconsciously buy into your transactional mentality and start to give you work that is “worth” what you pay them, or start to insist you “pay” more. She may also start to develop negative feelings about the work she does for you and maybe even the clients you serve. You may even find that her frustration with you starts leaking into her interactions with the organization’s clients, or the general public.
On the other hand, when the time and effort a volunteer puts in is warmly received with genuine gratitude, when her opinions and ideas are considered, especially in regards to changes that affect her work, when she is publicly thanked for her contributions, the “perks” simply serve to remind everyone that her work is important, that her contributions are valued, and that the time she puts in is worth it.
Volunteers, we want to hear from you! What could the organization you work for do to help you feel more valued?