One of the most common complaints I hear from volunteer-involving organisations is that many potential or new volunteers never respond or suddenly stop responding to emails and phone calls.
Often, I would argue, we only have ourselves to blame. On other occasions I believe there should be no blame at all – these drop-outs are unavoidable and actually a good thing.
When you apply for a job it’s common not to hear anything back unless you’re shortlisted for interview. Sadly many volunteering enquiries also go unanswered. So someone could apply for 5 jobs and hear nothing back, and enquire about 10 volunteering opportunities and get two replies. Why, then, are we surprised that if they’re not interested in our volunteer role when they learn more about it they simply ignore us? We’ve taught them that it’s fine to ignore someone.
Another common reason for sudden silence is a lack of support or information. I have known potential or new volunteers to stop responding when:
- it took the organisation weeks or even months to reply to their initial enquiry
- they haven’t been provided with information about the role(s) available and what they involve
- they haven’t been made to feel welcome (e.g. by being introduced to others, shown where they can get a coffee, greeted at an event, etc.)
- they simply haven’t been told where they need to be and when (sadly this happens a lot with committees, who assume that because their committee meeting dates are advertised on a website or in a newsletter new volunteers will automatically attend)
- they’ve missed a session or meeting and are worried about going back. Giving a new volunteer a call to check they’re OK and see why they weren’t there can make them feel valued, reassure them it’s OK to come back, and enable you to identify any concerns they have.
- they haven’t been given anything to do or, conversely, they feel bombarded with tasks they don’t want to do/feel ill-equipped to carry out
Part of good volunteer management is to support people through the early stages of volunteering – from when they enquire right through to when they’re a fully-fledged volunteer (and, of course, beyond that). We need to get things right.
Unavoidable drop out?
On the other hand, in my opinion, any healthy volunteer programme should have some drop out during the recruitment process (whether that’s a formalised process or not). It’s natural that some people will decide a role isn’t for them when they find out more. In fact you could argue that it’s good to try to put people off by being upfront about the realities of the role as early as possible.
An example of this which I often quote is the RNLI. I live at the coast and I once thought, “Maybe I should volunteer for the lifeboats.” I followed this up with a visit to their website, which quickly put me off the idea. Why? I read this…
“Imagine for a moment that you’re part of the crew on a lifeboat. It’s 2.30am on a freezing January morning and the pager’s just woken you from a deep sleep in a snug warm bed. You then head out to sea in complete darkness and 10m waves rise and fall around you, ready to swamp you at any moment. Strong gale force winds throw the lifeboat around like a toy. A fishing trawler is in difficulties 23 miles out to sea.
Still want to volunteer? Read on… ”
That put me off, and rightly so. I read that with horror so I’m not the right person for them. Much better to save everyone the time and effort of enquiring when it’s not the right role for me.
A less life-threatening example is the children’s reading charity Beanstalk, who I worked for until recently. They require volunteers to go into their local school twice a week, for 1.5 hrs each time, for a full academic year. At every stage of the recruitment process they ask questions like, “Are you intending to look for full time work in the next year?” “Can you commit to 3 hrs a week during school terms?” It’s natural that some people will drop out as a result of these questions and this is a good thing. To provide consistency and stability to the children they read with, volunteer reading helpers have to be able to give that level of commitment. It’s much better that people who can’t do that drop out sooner rather than later (or are directed towards another role with the charity).
Facing the facts
So we shouldn’t always beat ourselves up about every potential volunteer who never makes it to being a volunteer. But we should think about what happened and introduce good processes to prevent avoidable drop-out and the inevitable disappointment it causes all round.