Have you ever been told that managing volunteers is like herding cats? While that expression is chuckle-worthy for anyone who has been in a leadership position, it’s a harmful approach to communicating with one of your most important audiences. If you work for a church or nonprofit, chances are volunteers are an important part of moving your mission forward. Volunteers are usually the people who are most supportive of your mission, so how you talk to them—and about them—matters. Communicating well with this group is key to building trust and multiplying your efforts beyond what staff members can accomplish alone. 

Affirm Volunteers’ Value

Trust is developed when we understand our roles and feel valued in them. Think about this: what was your best experience as a volunteer? Most likely this positive experience sticks in your mind because you felt valued in the work you were doing. There are a few simple adjustments you can make in the language you use with volunteers to clearly communicate the value they bring to your organization. First, view and communicate with your volunteers as partners. When you communicate that your volunteers make your mission possible—rather than implying that they are assisting you in accomplishing tasks—you invite them into the story your organization is writing. 

It’s the difference between letting your volunteers play the fairy godmother in your organization’s story instead of the pumpkin. No one cares about the pumpkin. It just happened to be the thing that got Cinderella from point A to point B. But Cinderella couldn’t have gotten to the ball without her fairy godmother. 

This becomes even more important in large volunteer networks, when you don’t have many face-to-face interactions. How can you show your volunteers the importance of their investment in your organization? Impact stories are huge, and the more you can incorporate image-driven content the more it will click for them. Additionally, don’t underestimate an old-fashioned, hand-written note of appreciation. Work to affirm specific character qualities whenever possible to encourage your volunteers as human beings above worker bees.

Invest in Volunteer Development

Every touchpoint with your volunteers is a chance to make a deposit in their relational bank account. Your volunteers invest a huge amount of their time and energy into your mission. They are probably also some of your biggest donors—a recent study by Fidelity Charitable found that a third of Millennials say they give more to the nonprofit they volunteer with than they would if they didn’t volunteer—compared to 21 percent of Gen X and 12 percent of Baby Boomers.

Knowing that, give back to them!  Select your volunteers well, and then trust them to do the job. Train your volunteers for the role you want them to fill. Communicate with them proactively. Appreciate and encourage them. Coach when necessary. Give them the chance to lead when appropriate. Handing your volunteers real responsibility and providing accountability ups their investment in your organization. 

Above all, no matter what tasks your volunteers may be responsible for, make sure to connect their work to your mission as often as possible. Whether they are setting up chairs (this is really creating a comfortable environment for guests), stuffing envelopes (expressing gratitude to donors), or leading a hospitality team (caring for the folks who care for event attendees), there is always a deeper meaning to the task at hand.

Recognize the unique talents your volunteers bring to the organization and play to their strengths. Instead of trying to fit a volunteer into a predetermined mold, seek out opportunities to tailor volunteer tasks to the individual. Not only will this make for a more productive and efficient volunteer program, it reinforces the value of your volunteers as you identify and affirm their giftings. All of these gestures equip your volunteers to do their roles with excellence, and they ultimately benefit your organization.

Communicate Proactively to Build Trust

Having your stuff together when it comes to communications builds trust as well. Show that you have a plan for communication through your consistency and timing. Give your volunteers the inside scoop whenever you can—informing them of new programs and changes before the general public makes them feel valued and recognizes their contributions as leaders in your organization.

There’s a fine line to walk here. You do need to make sure you have a clear direction before communicating. It’s just as harmful to jump the gun and deploy a half-baked communication just because you want to give an inside scoop. While early communication builds trust, backtracking later destroys it. So, make sure you have a solid direction, then build time into your plan to communicate proactively with volunteers before the general public.

Whether you’re announcing great news or hard news, explain the “why.” Not only does this make your volunteers feel like part of your team, it also builds consensus and allows them to promote your mission to others in the community. Your volunteers should be your biggest fans, so consider them your street team. Early communication with them provides great insight as to how your announcement will be received by the general public. So, be sure to listen well after executing your communication and welcome feedback.

These subtle shifts in your communication go a long way to building trust with your volunteers. With greater trust comes greater retention—and once you find a great volunteer, you do not want to lose them! Oh, and P.S. These same strategies will work wonders for your staff retention, too! The applications may just look a little different. Give it a try. We think you’ll be amazed at the results.