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Disorganization = A Recipe for Volunteer Disengagement

volunteer disengagement
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volunteer disengagement

You look around the room at your fundraising committee meeting and wonder why so many people seem disengaged. Seriously. Each one of them agreed to work five pledge cards, right?

Now, four weeks into the campaign, you feel lucky that they have their first solicitation meeting scheduled. 

Sigh – or swear. Take a deep breath. Then consider that the fix for having more effective meetings requires looking at two big factors: the bustling lives of everyone in the room and how the session has been put together.

On your fact-finding mission, start by putting yourself in a committee member’s shoes. Consider that their morning usually starts with this simple thought:

It’s just another day with a long list of things to do.” 

With that in mind, walk through a typical day for one of your volunteers. I’ll call her Sarah.

As Sarah gets ready for work, she notices she’s running out of shampoo, toothpaste, eggs and milk. Nothing’s thawed for dinner, which only adds to the need for her or her husband, Bob, to stop at the grocery store on the way home.

Someone has to pick up daughter Susie after her volleyball practice. That will be determined by who can get out of the office first. Sarah has a meeting at the office that doesn’t start until 3:30 pm, and Bob has a presentation downtown, which means he’d have to finish in time to catch the right train.

So maybe ordering food for dinner would be in order, which would require a family consensus. But somebody still needs to get groceries. Oops! Sarah almost forgot to add dog food to the shopping list.

That reminds her. It’s son John’s turn to pick up after the dog and mow the lawn after school. She’ll have to text him 1,000 times to make sure he doesn’t conveniently forget. Or maybe post on Snapchat to have a better chance to reach him.

Her day includes the usual bombardment of electronic information, too. Work emails. Texts. More work emails. Phone calls. Social media. Messages from Bob, Susie and John. News, sports and weather feeds. There are so many loops in which she has to stay.

She also promised your annual campaign team that she would call the remaining donors on your list to set up solicitation meetings. She mentally braces herself for what’s sure to be a protracted string of phone tag with multiple people.

That’s what your nonprofit organization is competing against when it comes to a volunteer’s time.

The good news is when someone volunteers to help your nonprofit, they most likely feel a connection to its mission. They can and want to fit you into their busy schedule.

The bad news is you aren’t making it easy for them to do that if your fundraising efforts and meetings are disorganized, messy and chaotic.

Take a look at your meetings, and make sure none of the following happens:

As members arrive, staff is still setting up the room. The chair decides to start 10 minutes late. People straggle in.

Without an agenda or meeting materials sent out ahead of time, nobody seems sure what’s going to be discussed. Those who like to think things through before talking remain quiet anytime the chair introduces another topic.

The chair asks everyone for progress reports on action items to which they committed last meeting. As notes from that session were not sent to committee members, they feel caught off guard or simply don’t remember what they said.

The chairperson loses control. Nobody seems focused.

Frustration sets in as the meeting devolves into a series of side discussions.   

So volunteers on  “just another day with a long list of things to do” head home thinking –  

I’m a busy person and don’t have time to waste on volunteer disengagement and disorganized efforts like I’m currently suffering through. I should probably skip the next meeting or step back from this commitment.

Nobody wants to feel they are wasting the time they are giving. Being organized demonstrates respect for the time your volunteers donate to your organization.

What things show that sense of organization?

Agendas and meeting notes are a good start. More importantly, publishing meeting notes that include a list of action items — who agreed to what and by when — a few days after every meeting helps everyone feel organized.

Distribute agendas and accompanying materials approximately one week prior to an upcoming meeting. This gives volunteers time to think through what they may want to ask about the topics up for discussion. It leads to better participation during a meeting.

To feel organized, use facilitators who know a thing or two about keeping things on track. They’ll be adept at steering sidebar conversations back to the topic at hand and knowing when it’s time to come to a decision. 

Identify and recruit people who have experience with successfully running meetings and fixing volunteer disengagement. If you fall short in finding a chairperson with meeting management skills, then you’ll need to sink a little time into training and perhaps even coaching someone.

There are countless other things you can do to demonstrate to volunteers that you are a lean, mean, organized machine. Here are just a few additional quick tips:

  • When someone misses a meeting, call them the next day to share what they missed and tell them they were missed
  • Make sure your meeting room is set up before anyone arrives
  • Always tie discussions back to the group’s goals

If you really want to hit the mark, have an open discussion with your volunteers at the beginning of any campaign, event or project about what they need from you to help keep the group organized.

If you stick to these simple tips and tricks, it shows current as well as prospective volunteers your commitment to being well-organized. In turn, no one will be wondering in the middle of your meetings if you are wasting their time.

Good luck on your life-long journey from volunteer disengagement to engagement. Please share your organizations best practices in the comment box section. Let’s keep this conversation rolling. We can all learn from each other!

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