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By Jim Paglia
I hope you saw Phyllis Riedler's two excellent columns in Grassroots Soccer Biz on finding and keeping volunteers (Six Simple Tips to Find Volunteers and Seven Secrets to Keeping Your Volunteers Happy)
I found these articles to be highly informative, and Ms. Riedler's insight of great value. What follows is an attempt to build on her excellent advice. Having held the top post in more than 25 volunteer organizations, I know volunteers are the most critical resource to any nonprofit. So why is it many organizations treat their volunteers like afterthoughts, and place more emphasis on "the product," the mission, and sadly, sometimes on paid staff? Why is there such a dearth of volunteers in club and recreational soccer these days? Here are four possible reasons:
1. The people who have been in charge in the past will not let go. They fear "things won't get done right," or they use the excuse, "No one else knows how to do it." This is all code for, "I don't want to give up my perceived power."
2. As the headline says, you cannot make them do anything. In our haste to get something done, we tell rather than ask how someone might see themself doing a task. Volunteers, like the rest of the human race, do not like to be bullied, ordered around, or dealt with in a condescending manner.
3. The organization does not require documentation of tasks to preserve information for future reference.
4. Here is a reason sure to upset many people: over-reliance on paid staff.
Follow this analogy: As an expert in municipal government once told me, "As long as we pay professionals to staff homeless shelters we will have more homeless people than necessary." In his opinion, many of the people who work in homeless shelters do very little to overcome real homelessness. They deal mostly with the symptoms of homelessness thus ensuring they will remain gainfully employed, but they do not address root causes. If you doubt volunteers can address such critical issues, then explain to me how the American Red Cross volunteers, in most cases, serve better as first responders during life-threatening natural disasters than do government (FEMA) employees.
Clubs and recreational programs often cite their size as the reason they need more paid staff. As a past officer of a statewide league in Illinois, and founder of four clubs, I do not buy that volunteers cannot do most of the work.
The surest way I have found to identify effective volunteers is to have a specific and discernible task for them to perform. Inviting people to serve in a general fashion is usually nonproductive. Volunteers are not bodies -- they are people! Probe to find what each person hopes to gain from performing a specific assignment and you are more likely to get their best effort and to satisfy them as well. Matching talents with specific needs, where a volunteer can see the impact of their efforts generally gets them to take on more.
Organizations usually retain more volunteers when they have a formal mechanism for tracking volunteer efforts, recognizing volunteers both within the organization and publicly, offering them the option to advance or try new skills, and take a break. Monitoring volunteers as a formal function of your board also serves to identify the best individuals for future leadership roles.
The best way I have found to recruit is to have an individual volunteer ask someone they know to serve. One-to-one commitments of a personal nature yield more productive and lasting involvements. Finding new volunteers always takes more effort (think: learning curve) than retaining the ones you have! Honor and cherish your volunteers above all else, and the organizational mission will flourish!
Jim Paglia is a nationally recognized brand strategist who lives outside Chicago. He has an extensive background in soccer ranging from the NASL, to NCAA Division I, to World Cup 1994, and 30 years of club administration and coaching. Contact Jim at email@example.com.