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How to Avoid Volunteer Heartbreak

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Sometimes they're a true blessing. Other times, well, not so much.

Hopefully your non-profit's experience with corporate volunteer programs has been nothing but positive.  The program was organized, the volunteer team was filled with eager and genuinely engaged employees, the team took their work seriously, stayed on task, accepted direction, and the day was a resounding success because of it all.

Odds are, however, that you've seen corporate volunteering in its less laudable form.
Maybe the program dissolved into one elaborate cause marketing ploy.  Your corporate partner was more concerned with poignant photo opportunities and heart-warming press releases than the actual task at hand. Or maybe the volunteers saw the program as a much needed day off from the daily grind, spending the day giggling with their colleagues, taking naps in the sun, and spending more time discussing who was buying the first round of drinks that night than the actual volunteer work itself.

If you've ever worked as a non-profit volunteer coordinator, chances are you've felt the disappointment of gently urging your volunteer team to come back from their long-extended lunch break, only to be met with a harmlessly intended joke that cuts a little too deep given the circumstances: "Well, you can take it out of our paycheck."  Sound familiar?  Then you know all too well the ensuing frustration as you force a chuckle, walk back to the job site and desperately hope that your volunteer team will follow your lead.

What separates successful corporate volunteer programs from the not-so-successful kind?  And what can you do to ensure your non-profit is getting the most from your corporate partners?
In past years, the corporate partnership game has changed for non-profits. Corporate social responsibility is fast becoming a critical ingredient of bottom line success in the modern business world.  Not only is a global consumer base increasingly demanding that corporate philanthropy efforts are stepped up, but a new generation of socially-minded professionals wants to see their employers do more than just cut a check to worthy causes. Instead, corporate volunteer programs are on their way to becoming a mandate for companies who want high employee retention and employee engagement rates for their top young talent.

As such, you can't simply bring home a hefty check from a corporate sponsor and then call it a day. To nurture lasting relationships with top corporate partners, your non-profit needs to develop novel fundraising ideas that involve a company's employees and create meaningful, impactful volunteer opportunities which advance mutual goals. In the best of all worlds, corporate partners enjoy an enriching volunteer experience which aligns with their cause marketing strategies and promotes employee engagement, and you gain access to a hard-working and capable volunteer team which helps you pursue your mission.

Some factors are beyond your control -- the internal motivation of the volunteer team, for example, or their willingness to receive your guidance and instruction. But if you're a non-profit leader, there are three key measures you can take to give your corporate volunteers the greatest chance of success:

1. Get Organized

Don't assume you can simply throw a volunteer team into the fire on their first work day and expect them to take care of themselves, no matter how prestigious their day jobs might be.  A well-run volunteer program means extra effort on your part.  These aren't your staff members; they're not around your non-profit's work day-in and day-out.  Plan accordingly, doing everything you can to create a work structure which will allows your volunteers to make the most of their talent and energy.

2. Strike the Right Tone

Find a leadership style which keeps your volunteers on track without stripping them of their enthusiasm.  In the world of volunteer management, there's a fine line between leading your volunteers and bossing them around. You certainly don't want to make your energetic volunteer team feel "voluntold," but you also need to keep the work balance tilted toward structure as opposed to chaos.

3. Delegate Wisely

Give your volunteers meaningful and rewarding jobs.  What's the best way to sap your volunteer team's enthusiasm?  It's a toss-up between a dictatorial, unappreciative leadership style or mind-numbing under-stimulation. If you or your staff are on site, you should be taking care of the most menial tasks available, not your volunteers. Even if it would be more efficient for you to simply take over and complete the more substantive work, it doesn't matter. Take the extra time to set your volunteers on course, or, if necessary, work alongside them. But don't relegate them to the jobs you've been avoiding because they're the least interesting.

Positioning your volunteers to leverage their skills pro-bono (or, if the work is outside of their skill set, then at least their enthusiasm) will help ensure that your non-profit makes the most of corporate volunteer programs.  Better yet, smart use of company volunteers will lay the foundation for a lasting corporate partnership that keeps a steady stream of resources and funding flowing to your organization for years to come.
 
I want to write about how your non-profit navigates the business world.  Email me at ryanscott@causecast.org and tell me how you work with your corporate supporters.