“All We Did is Pick Weeds in a Field”: A Painful Volunteer Engagement Lesson

 “All we did is pick weeds in a field.”

Heart sinking, I listened.

A client called after serving as volunteers for a project that I had arranged and said this.

Wait, that cannot be right! I did a site visit with the organization, one of the biggest and best run nonprofits in town-- they showed me the project and it was good -- developing an educational area in their environmental program for school kids.

You all said you wanted an environmental and youth-focused project. This was volunteer day, match-made-in-heaven perfection!

So, what happened?? 

The upshot was the volunteers were not shown their return on investment (ROI). They are there to make a social impact (investment) and need to know how the task of today relates to the mission (return). 

Sadly, in my story, the volunteers didn’t get the purpose or the connection to the mission and felt like it was a waste of their time. The organization and I had missed effectively laying the groundwork to demonstrate this because we assumed it was obvious to them like it was to us. 

We knew this task was part of the bigger picture but clearly the volunteers did not make that connection, which was our mistake-- we needed to tell them this. They saw a long, hot, boring day of “picking weeds in a field”. UGH. What a missed opportunity!

Since this is National Volunteer Week, I wanted to share this story. Many of you do mission-oriented work every day, are immersed and know how each task, however small or mundane, is part of the big picture. But many (most) of your volunteers need you to paint that picture for them. We can’t assume it’s obvious. It’s our duty to illustrate to volunteers why this work matters to the good work of the organization, no matter the task. Does this also apply to board members? No doubt -- absolutely, yes!

Volunteers want to know-- 
How am I making an impact? What is possible because I am volunteering today?

My Advice from Lessons Learned
Take time to step back out of your day to day operations mode and think about a person experiencing your organization with no context or prior knowledge. Think through these questions and decide how you can articulate this in a meaningful way to your volunteers (through words, images, demonstrations, etc.). 
  • What is the community need?
  • What does the organization do overall to meet the need?
  • What does this program do to affect the need?
  • How does this specific volunteer project relate back to that need?
  • What is possible because of today’s volunteer efforts?

These are the questions and answers that will help volunteers see there is a return on their investment. This is what they need to know to feel committed, part of the team and to stick around. It’s not hard to do but is easy to forget to do. 

Take the time to make the explanation, show the ROI, for your volunteers and watch their dedication grow!