A guest post by Matt Hugg, Nonprofit.Courses
“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man happy, healthy and wise.” Who wrote that? Benjamin Franklin in his Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1735.
Ben must have gotten to bed pretty early. He was the original American super-volunteer!
He started a school that became a great university, and also a scientific society, a library, a firefighting company, a hospital, an insurance company, and headed a major fraternal organization. And nearly all exist today! (Which were they? Keep reading!)
We can wonder what kept Ben motivated. Was it civic pride for his adopted home? Was it a feeling that what was good for his community was good for his business — the print shop that produced the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper and more? Maybe his wife encouraged him, knowing that if he was busy elsewhere, he couldn’t make trouble for her!
We’ll never really know.
But have you asked yourself, “Besides a good night’s sleep, what would make my volunteers ‘healthy and wise’?” Or, in other words, “How can I create some Ben Franklin-inspired super-volunteers of my own?” Let’s look at 10 ways to achieve and maintain a happy, healthy, volunteer program.
1. It starts with seeing the big picture.
This may have been Franklin’s greatest strength. His newspaper gave him a perspective that few had. Few people come to you saying, “I love filing! Put me to work filing all day and I’ll be happy no matter what your cause!” No. They’re with you because they want to be a part of your mission, and if that takes some filing, they’ll file. Some will even get out of their comfort zone and do things you or they never imagined, like fundraising, if they love your cause. Reminding your volunteers of their role in your bigger picture keeps them motivated, even if the work is difficult, boring, or scary.
2. Give your volunteers variety.
It’s hard to see a common thread among Franklin’s community work. Education, healthcare, public safety, science… maybe when he got bored, he went on to another? You don’t want your volunteers to get bored. Give them variety in their work. Even the most enthusiastic program volunteer may appreciate helping in the office just for the different nature of the work — as long as they believe in your cause.
3. Know why they’re volunteering.
We can only guess at Franklin’s motivations for all that he did. He may have enjoyed the notoriety. He may have had compassion for those who needed the services he created. He could have had a vision for what Philadelphia could become. After all, Franklin’s Philadelphia was the British Empire’s biggest city (after London), but with few of its rival’s amenities.
My guess is that someone knew — and kept him motivated to do more. Do you know what motivates each of your volunteers? For some it will be community spirit. A few might have personal connections to someone on your organization’s board. Others want friends, while some are looking for job skills or simply felt inspired by your website. Maybe they’re giving back for services given to them or a loved one in a time of need. It’s essential that you find out so you can fulfill their needs and they can, in turn, keep fulfilling yours.
4. Let them think.
Franklin was known as one of the great minds of his age. He brought ideas to the table and helped implement them on a regular basis. If his colleagues would have only valued Franklin for his printing abilities, think of how much we all would have lost!
What about your volunteers? Do you value their ideas as much as their output? A lot of them may have ideas on how to do their assigned job better. Or maybe they see how your nonprofit can serve more people or save money. Ask them! Just asking, even if it leads to nothing, shows you value them and keeps them on your side.
5. Tap into their skills.
In the beginning, few people probably appreciated Franklin’s skills to organize and envision a better Philadelphia, let alone a better America. His culture placed tradesmen like Franklin just slightly over farmers as people who didn’t imagine their world beyond the land or shop they worked in. Real thinking, everyone thought, was done by the noble elite.
But Franklin’s skills went beyond typesetting and ink rolling. His print shop became a place where people brought ideas, and he, in turn, sent those ideas out to the world. The smart people around Franklin saw this and put his skills to work for everyone’s benefit.
Do you know your volunteers’ skills? Not just the skill for the job you have them doing, but do you know the skills they developed over their lifetime of experience? Franklin was more than “just a printer,” just like your volunteers are more than “just volunteers.” You could be missing a lot of potential for your mission. Ask them. They’ll be happy you did.
You can even provide them with training to help build those skills they arrive with. And there are a ton of free training resources out there that are perfect for nonprofit volunteer programs. For example, the Nonprofit.Courses list of nonprofit webinars points nonprofits towards a variety of training opportunities that cover topics from fundraising to marketing.
6. Give clear directions.
This was not lost on Franklin at all. In fact, there’s hard evidence of how much he valued clear directions, starting with a job description and right down to the task level. Top of the list are the Articles of his all-volunteer Union Fire Company. They lay out exactly what a member needed to have and do to carry out his firefighting duties, which included providing linen bags and leather buckets, and penalties if they were missing or broken.
Do you have clear directions for your volunteers? Does each volunteer know what’s expected of them, and the consequences of not meeting those expectations? Your volunteers want to do their best. They’ll appreciate knowing what you expect.
7. Help them tell your story.
As a printer, Franklin knew the power of stories to illustrate a point. He used stories to motivate others on the issues of his day, even if he told them under made-up names — like a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood!
Stories are a powerful way to motivate your volunteers, and for them to pass on to rally others to your cause. Chances are that whoever started your nonprofit saw a problem, injustice or need that required fixing. For example, perhaps your founder saw a problem in your community with animal abuse or environmental issues and wanted to make a difference. From there, they probably faced resistance or apathy when they brought the issue to light. Your nonprofit exists because they took on the challenge despite any opposition. That’s your heroic origin story! Your volunteers would love to know!
Build on that story and tell more stories about the impact your work has on the people it serves. Encourage your volunteers to tell others. It’s not only a way to keep volunteers happy, it’s also a great nonprofit marketing strategy, too.
8.Make them insiders.
It’s clear that Franklin loved being an insider. He loved to know “the scoop,” as we’d call it today. Maybe that’s what made his newspaper so well-read.
Knowing “inside” information helps everyone feel more secure in what they are doing, whether it’s a paid job or a volunteer position. If you want happy volunteers, you need volunteers to feel that their role is secure in an organization that securely fills its niche in the community. A little bit of “insider” information can go a long way toward everyone feeling good about their work.
9. Make them donors.
If you have your own money dedicated to a project, you’re even more committed. Franklin knew that probably more than anyone of his time. And he didn’t just talk the talk. There’s evidence of his giving, and even giving the ultimate gift — a bequest. At his passing, Franklin left $4,000 that was to be invested and distributed 200 years later to Boston (his birthplace) and Philadelphia (his home). The resulting $6.5 million went to education, science, healthcare, and more.
Are your volunteers also dedicated donors? Why not? When someone is giving their time and talents and also gives what treasure they can, think of how powerful a statement that is for everyone around them! And don’t think that even the person who looks like they can’t, won’t. Make them happy by giving them the dignity of making the decision for themselves.
10. Wish them well when they leave.
If Franklin’s friends were smart, they wouldn’t have resented or bad-mouthed him when he went on to another project. They would have thanked him heartily and wished him well. Why? To start, they probably knew they couldn’t stop him from moving on. Franklin, like all of us, needed to grow. But even more importantly, they knew that his positive experience, even to the end, would encourage others to join. A great experience, even for an ex-volunteer, encourages others to join your cause.
Not every volunteer will be as prolific as Ben Franklin for your worthy cause. But follow these ten points, and your organization will become wealthy and healthy — and you’ll all feel pretty wise!
(And just so you’re not wondering, those organizations Franklin started that exist today are the University of Pennsylvania, the American Philosophical Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Hospital, the Philadelphia Contributorship (insurance), and the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania. The Union Fire Company lasted until 1843 — about 100 years!)
Matt Hugg is an author and instructor in nonprofit management in the US and abroad. He is president and founder of Nonprofit.Courses (https://nonprofit.courses), an on-demand, eLearning educational resource for nonprofit leaders, staff, board members, and volunteers, with thousands of courses in nearly every aspect of nonprofit work.
He’s the author of The Guide to Nonprofit Consulting, and Philanders Family Values, Fun Scenarios for Practical Fundraising Education for Boards, Staff and Volunteers, and a contributing author to The Healthcare Nonprofit: Keys to Effective Management.
Over his 30-year career, Hugg has held positions at the Boy Scouts of America, Lebanon Valley College, the University of Cincinnati, Ursinus College, and the University of the Arts. In these positions, Matt raised thousands of gifts from individuals, foundations, corporations and government entities, and worked with hundreds of volunteers on boards and fundraising committees, in addition to his organizational leadership responsibilities.
Matt teaches fundraising, philanthropy, and marketing in graduate programs at Eastern University, the University of Pennsylvania, Juniata College and Thomas Edison State University via the web, and in-person in the United States, Africa, Asia and Europe, and is a popular conference speaker. He has a BS from Juniata College and an MA in Philanthropy and Development from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Mr. Hugg has served on the board of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Nonprofit Career Network of Philadelphia and several nonprofits.