Volunteer engagement is a buzz phrase in our profession. It is increasingly being used in place of, or alongside, management and leadership. For example, last year’s national summit in the USA focused on Volunteer Engagement Leadership. But what is volunteer engagement exactly?

What is volunteer engagement?

My Canadian friend and colleague, Erin Spink, strives for a definition in her excellent 2008 article, ‘Deconstructing Engagement: Beyond the Buzzword(subscription to e-volunteerism.com required to access full article):

“As we work with volunteers, what we must understand is that engagement is largely a self-defined state, and not based on how individuals were initially drawn to an organization, how many hours they put into service, or what we offer as recognition items. While not often stated in such terms, the overarching goal of well-managed volunteer programs is to create a culture or environment in which there is congruence between espoused values and standards and actual practice. It is this interconnectedness of many factors that creates the concept of engagement. This places an increased emphasis on the importance of organizations to employ a volunteer management professional, and to ensure there exists a readiness to embrace the philosophies and standards of effective volunteer management.”

How can we increase volunteer engagement?

My concern here is less on the conceptual nature of volunteer engagement. For those of you who want more on this, see the links to more of Erin’s writing at the end of this post. I’m focused more on how we can increase engagement, a subject briefly explored in an article by Roger Parry of Agenda Consulting, ‘What drives volunteer engagement?’. Based on data from more than five thousand volunteers surveyed by Agenda Consulting over the years, Roger concludes that:

“If you wish to increase the engagement of volunteers, pay particular attention to the following three factors:

  • The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect their manager
  • The extent to which your volunteers can clearly see the impact of their work
  • The extent to which your volunteers trust and respect your organisation’s leadership”

In fact, Roger’s work suggests that these three factors alone account for almost two-thirds of what drives volunteers to feel engaged with an organisation. How then, can we increase their presence in our organisations?

Action #1 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in their manager

In their excellent book, ‘The Leadership Challenge’, James Kouzes and Barry Posner make the point that without trust there is a lack of leadership credibility. To build trust and inspire performance, leaders must focus on the elements that build credibility: communication, competence, and integrity.

Consider these three behaviours Kouzes and Posner suggest all leaders should adopt:

  1. Do you consistently ensure that all communication with volunteers is open, honest, accessible, and constructive?
  2. Do you proactively use your background and expertise to explore solutions to both small and large problems around volunteer involvement?
  3. Do you follow through with your commitments and promises? In other words, Do What You Say You Will Do (DWYSYWD).

Where you directly manage volunteers these are more immediately actionable. In some organisations, other staff may line mange the volunteers with the Volunteer Manager acting like an HR department. Do these line management staff understand the importance of building credibility with volunteers? Are they actively supported to adopt the three behaviours outline above?

Live these three behaviours. Do them consistently. Do them well. The trust and respect volunteers have for you will increase, along with their engagement.

Action #2 – Increasing volunteer trust and respect in your organisation’s leadership

In an article I wrote in 2017, I highlighted worrying data from a survey of 300 charity leaders:

  • Only 51% of CEOs thought volunteering was very important to achieving their mission, lagging behind donors, paid staff and trustees (WHO ARE VOLUNTEERS!).
  • 16% of CEOs thought volunteering was either slightly important (10%) or not important at all (6%).
  • When asked to identify “the most important thing to help the charity sector increase its impact in society”, only 4% of CEOs chose “engaging users, stakeholders and volunteers”.

In short, according to this survey, a worrying number of nonprofit leaders are, at best ignorant, and at work negligent when it comes to the true value of volunteers. No wonder volunteers might not trust or respect them!

This is why Susan J Ellis and I wrote, ‘’From The Top Down – UK Edition,”a book aimed at CEOs, senior managers, boards – organisation leadership – to help them understand the strategic importance of volunteering and what they can do to build the trust and respect of volunteers.

Here are two things you can do to help enlighten your leadership and so enable more trust and respect in them by volunteers:

  1. We all need to get a lot better at measuring the real value of volunteers to our organisations and communicating that effectively to leadership. We have to move away from counting how many volunteers they have and how many hours they give and look at a more rounded understanding of the social, economic and personal value of volunteers (opens a PDF file) and what they do to further the work of our organisations.
  2. We need to push for civil society infrastructure (for example, in the UK this could be NCVO, SCVO, WCVA, ACEVO etc.) and educational institutions that run courses for nonprofit leaders to educate more people about the importance and value of volunteering. This is a theme I have mentioned in a recent article and it is one I think we need to work on far more, perhaps through our professional networks like AVM, AAMoV and Al!ve.

Action #3 – Helping volunteers see the impact of their work

Fundamental to ensuring volunteers can see the impact of their work is the design on meaningful and motivating volunteer roles that enable people to make a difference. I don’t mean a contribution but a real difference, where the volunteer sees how their work as impacted on the lives of others and helped fulfil the mission of the organisation.

This is a topic I have written on before so rather than repeat myself here check out two of my past articles:

So there you have it, my ideas to positively influence volunteer engagement. What would you add to the list? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts, ideas and tips.


Those readers interested in the conceptual understanding of volunteer engagement are encouraged to read two more of Erin Spink’s articles:

All three of these articles by Erin can be accessed via a subscription to e-volunteerism.com.

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