By Daniel C. Olsen, Senior Consultant, Special Districts Association of Oregon
If you are to retain volunteers, then the principle of “mutual benefit” must be applied. Often, this is forgotten because the focus is on the services provided by the organization. It is then assumed that volunteers join only to to accomplish the mission of the organization. This is partially true. However, there are expectations each of your volunteers have when joining.
What is Mutual Benefit?
What is “mutual benefit”? It is a contract or agreement in which both parties gain some type of advantage or value.
When the volunteer joins the organization, both the organization and volunteer enter into an agreement: it is a fair exchange of time and effort for the accomplishment of the purpose or mission of the organization. There is a basic assumption people want to give their time. But what is the benefit they receive? If there is no benefit to them, you are taking an unfair advantage of the volunteer. Remember, volunteers are a valuable asset, not to be take advantage of!
Both the volunteer and organization have needs and expectations. The organization needs people to accomplish their mission. But the volunteer also has needs and expectations.
The relationship between the volunteer member and organization must be a balanced equation with each party receiving value. If the equation is unequal, then it does not work well, and you will not be able to retain volunteers for a reasonable period of time.
Consider the example of a battery. It must have energy, or a charge, to work. It also needs to be recharged in order to be able to continue working. What are you doing to charge up/recharge your volunteers?
Why people quit or leave an organization
Two reasons commonly cited, as to why a person leaves an organization, are burnout and boredom.
Burnout is being overused. A volunteer can be overused because they are willing, enthusiastic, or can’t say NO. A volunteer can be underused because they do not speak up. They may appear disinterested standoffish.
Boredom, on the other hand, is being underused. The volunteer is not able to utilize their time or talents in a productive and satisfying way. Also, boredom occurs when your time and talents are not utilized enough in a production way.
Why people volunteer
People volunteer because they want to. They want to help others and impact their community. They want to do good work.
We know that volunteering can be beneficial for the mind, body and spirit. Volunteering can provide a sense of purpose, increase self-confidence, be mentally stimulated and provide career improvement.
Make sure the benefits connect with the expectations the individual has as a volunteer. Start with five basic areas of expectations:
- Social contacts/helping people. I know of one District whose Volunteer of the Year was a paraplegic. When the engine rolled out of the Station, he rolled out of his house, a few doors away, and performed a support role by handling radio traffic and other tasks.
- Self-improvement. Volunteering is a fun and easy way to explore your interests and passions. Volunteering provides an opportunity to practice important skills used in the workplace, such as teamwork/teambuilding, communication, problem solving, project planning, task management, and organization.
- Career development/resume. It can help you with career opportunities and expose you to professional organizations or internships that could benefit your career. (Example: a young volunteer firefighter is most likely seeking employment as a career firefighter)
- Share talents and skills. Three specific examples that come to mind: a retired person, not interested in being a first responder, was a talented mechanic who volunteered as the mechanic to the Fire District. Another retired person, who had experience in training, volunteered as the training officer. A third example was a lawyer who volunteered as a photographer to promote and market the work of the Department.
- Performing work that is meaningful. This can include special projects or needs not being addressed in your community.
How to improve Mutual Benefit
To improve mutual benefit in your organization, talk with each of your volunteers. Explore the following five questions:
- Ask what expectations they have (the five areas of expectations).
- Discuss those items.
- Cooperatively develop an individualized development plan for each volunteer.
- Identify indicators of incremental progression.
- Monitor progress with periodic meetings.
In developing the plan, Consider the following examples:
- Specific assignments where they can gain experience
- Pairing up individuals for developing contacts with people and organizations and mentoring
- Specific training in technical areas, administrative or management skills
When the volunteer joins the organization, both the organization and volunteer enter into an agreement. It should be a fair exchange of time and effort for the accomplishment of the purpose or mission of the organization.
The relationship between the volunteer member and organization should be a balanced equation. If the equation is unequal, then it does not work well, and you will have difficulties retaining volunteers for a reasonable period of time.
Talk with your volunteers and develop a plan for meeting their expectations. Identify indicators of incremental progression and monitor progress of the plan.
The Principle of Mutual Benefit is a key to having a successful volunteer program.