Volunteerism and Activism Are Not Like Running A Business

Most companies have a mission: make money. I’ve started companies, worked at companies, and sold companies. And when working on a business, you need to make money, or the IRS calls it a hobby, and you need a day job. Companies have employees. Non-profits can have employees, but there are usually more volunteers than employees. Activist organizations also have volunteers, but often have way more people that just show up to events.

Volunteers and activists are not like employees. They don’t get paid, they don’t get insurance, and they don’t have to put up with a bunch of crap. But they might have many other attributes that an employee has, including responsibilities, expenses, and even leadership positions.

When working with activists and volunteers, keep a few basic rules in mind:

  • Split responsibilities up as much as possible. Anyone that gets overburdened will burn out. You might delegate a number of tasks to an employee but spreading tasks out will keep volunteers engaged and not overwhelm them.
  • Don’t assume long-term involvement unless you get a commitment. Positions like board memberships come with a long-term commitment. If you have a large training program, you also want to secure a commitment from trainees before you engage in training. Just because you have a commitment doesn’t mean that you can count on it, but when you discuss a commitment, it’s good to get expectations set early.
  • Expect turnover. There’s no golden handcuffs, like a paycheck or a 401k. This means people can come and go, and they will. Don’t admonish, as then they’ll just go. If you’re lucky and communicate with your group in a way that isn’t overkill, they may just keep coming, here and there. But ask people to spread the word. That way, when the most active volunteer who helps with everything stops showing up, you have willing and able people in line behind them! Most companies try to limit turnover; but assume it will happen, and assume turnover will be high.
  • Incentivize. If you have funds, a t-shirt, sticker, hat, socks, and other giveaways are not going to be the only reason people show up, but a little token of thanks goes a long way. These conversation starters could also be a nice way to recruit more members as group members discuss items with friends. Also, here’s a little secret sauce – keep the designs or items changing. This way you’ll end up with people looking at items as status, like I heard recently “oh look, she’s wearing the 2010 shirt, nice!" A lot of companies have an online store you can buy swag at, as should most non-profits. But swag can be a strong motivator, especially when you aren't paying people!
  • Keep politics out of it. Wait, maybe you’re a political group… What I mean is politics inside the group. Having cliques form within a group can work in your favor, but are usually just going to end up obfuscating the mission. This is the same at work, but impossible to control with people who show up and see each other every day for years on end.
  • Call out exceptional help. If you have someone that goes above and beyond, find ways to recognize them. Be careful, if you recognize them for an event they helped with everyone else will need recognition to (or this could become a demotivator). So I like to stick with thanking people for all they do and calling out multiple reasons for doing so!
  • Be appreciative. A gentle thank you goes a long way. If someone shows up to an event a year, they’re still engaged and as vital to the success of the organization as anyone else. Make sure to personally thank as many people as you can for even the smallest amounts of involvement. In companies we should do this more than we do, but with volunteers it's critical.

Finally, don’t forget the mission. You have a cause, you have action you want to take, and you have a mission. Keep that in mind and make sure to link every activity you ask for participation in back to the mission. While it seems obvious sometimes, it can never hurt to explain how your activities are contributing to a larger cause and greater good.

Have you tried to treat volunteers like employees or been treated that way? Share your stories with us!

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