We were all saddened by the death of Queen Elizabeth II – she represented so much to so many. She was known for her words of wisdom and humanity through the best times as well as the most difficult ones. One of my favorite quotations of hers is: “To be inspirational, you don’t have to save lives or win medals. I often draw strength from meeting ordinary people doing extraordinary things: volunteers, carers, community organizers and good neighbors; unsung heroes whose quiet dedication makes them special. They are an inspiration to those who know them.”

She reminds us that anything you give matters to the person you give it to.

Researchers have recently debunked the notion that happiness is the goal of life. In an interesting twist, they have found instead that happiness is a byproduct for individuals who have a “purpose” or meaning in their lives. Many organizations in the nonprofit sector have an individual whose purpose is to cultivate meaning in the lives of others – the Volunteer Manager. In fact, if we could rename this job, we would call it “Meaning Architect.” Yet, the work that these industrious individuals – and the volunteers in their charge – do is often underrated.

While we are lucky in the nonprofit sector to deal in “meaning” – changing lives, improving lives, even saving lives – we often fail to recognize the meaning given to our organizations by our volunteers. Volunteers are the lifeblood of any nonprofit – creating change as mentors and making business decisions as board members. And they are often the best prospects for donations and great stories. They do this to create meaning in their own lives. So, the person who manages all these volunteers is truly the differentiator between a good and great nonprofit.

As we gear up for a return to community volunteering this fall, we wanted to share what we have learned from these “Meaning Architects” in the organizations we work with.

Hire the Right Ambassador

First, the most important thing you can do to recruit and retain your volunteers is to hire the right ambassador (a.k.a., Volunteer Manager) for your organization. This person should unambiguously embody the qualities you want to convey – positivity, graciousness, empathy, flexibility. Having the right person in the job and retaining them as a key member of your management team will help nurture long-term volunteer and donor relationships that benefit both the volunteer and the organization. If you need further proof of how valuable volunteer stewardship is, consider this: a study by the Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund found that volunteers donate 10 times more money to charitable organizations than non-volunteers, with most directed to the organizations for which they volunteered.

Take Your Work Seriously, But Not Yourself

Second, although the issues we deal with are serious, we shouldn’t always be. Volunteers should enjoy their work. It’s important to infuse the element of “play” into their experience. For example, at a recent Texas Volunteer Management Conference, we have dropped boring networking time in favor of a more engaging game of “Get-to-Know-You BINGO.” I encourage you to find ways for your board and volunteer groups to have some fun together (download our special BINGO game for boards). My favorite icebreaker is STAND UP, where you say statements (e.g., I play a musical instrument) and board members or volunteers stand up if the statement is true. Meaning is created through relationships, and playing together creates bonds that cannot be broken.

Count Your (Volunteer) Blessings

Third, our volunteers constitute a pro bono workforce that contributes an incredible amount of value to our organizations. And, fortunately, because we live in a society that loves data, that value is quantifiable. Independent Sector has put a value on volunteer time – $29.95 per hour. I encourage you to track volunteer time and use this dollar value to quantify what volunteers bring to your organization.

Help Your Volunteers Help You

Finally, while the data is important, the story is ultimately what motivates individuals into action. Volunteers engage with your organization because they support the cause and believe giving their time to it is the right thing to do. Nonprofit organizations are always looking for free marketing – why not use your volunteers’ passion to spread the word? Make it easy for volunteers to talk about the organization by sending them a kit to share what they have been doing with their friends and family. Remember the famous line from Jerry Maguire: “Help me help you”? Help your volunteers help you by telling their story and building an army of supporters. It will turn an average volunteer into an evangelist for your organization and create meaning for others.

We love our Volunteer Managers, but are we equipping them to create a more meaningful experience for our volunteers? We would love to hear your ideas of what you do to take your volunteer experience to the next level.


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