Nonprofit ventures rely on volunteers, and they all dream of the perfect helper: someone who comes regularly, understands the job asked of them and does it cheerfully.
I can't promise I can help you find the perfect volunteer, but I can offer some tips on keeping the help happy.
And I will confess here, some of the lessons I'm putting down were learned through making mistakes as a volunteer, a publicity chairperson, an adviser and an event coordinator.
The time economy
Obviously, volunteers give up their time. While it's free to you, it's precious to them. Respect it. Don't ask for more than you need.
Coordination meetings can be important, but keep them short and make sure there's a compelling reason to have one before you call it.
And while thanking your volunteers is important, think carefully before asking them to come to a thank you celebration party after a big event is over. (I've been guilty of this.) Your helpers may be looking forward to having more time with family and friends now that the big push is over. To them, the party is just one more time commitment. They may prefer a gift certificate--even if it's just for ice cream.
Know how many people you need, where you will put them and what their specific duties will be. So often, especially with a large event that is staffed almost entirely by time-crunched, unpaid people, it's a temptation to ask for a dozen helpers and figure out what to do with them after they show up. But it's discouraging to arrive ready to do a job and discover you're just an extra body, or to find the coordinator is too busy doing her job to tell the helpers how to do theirs.
The best-run events are thought out: for example, X number of volunteers needed to staff sign-up locations, divided into shifts.
It's easier to heap more work on people who will are reliable than to take a chance entrusting it to those who are not proven--or who have let you down in the past. The danger in this policy: burning out your best people.
Burnout comes from other reasons, too: changing health, the birth of a new baby, the beginning of a demanding job, caregiver demands, the loss of other volunteers in the organization. The best organizations find a way to mentor new leaders and part as friends with those who need to step away.
Keeping a volunteer movement sustainable is tricky, but here are some things that help:
1) Maintain documentation of how the organization is run, including the roles of volunteer officers.
2) Train volunteer officers. Again, this is another time demand, so it's important to send people who are committed and make sure the training is handled in a way that respects their time. Never underestimate the power of good food as a way to cement the experience as a happy, worthwhile one.
3) Keep an eye out for people who can assume leadership, should you lose someone unexpectedly.
4) If your volunteer organization is getting so unwieldy that it is hard to sustain your event, it may be time to consider creating a paid, coordinating position. It will hurt. It will be hard. Your budget officer will protest. But it may make the difference between an event that succeeds and one that struggles.