When I was teenager, I spent my summers volunteering for a mission organization, traveling the country, helping build houses for those in need. One of the most important lessons I learned was about the foundation of a home, without which, the house will crumble. This is much like your volunteer ministry in the church, the foundation which helps accomplish the church’s vision and mission, making volunteer appreciation a top concern.
A healthy volunteer ministry and volunteer teams are “foundational” to a thriving church. If volunteers are not healthy, growing, appreciated and poured into, like a bad foundation on a home, it can crumble the entire house.
I have heard it said the most valuable group of volunteers you have, are the ones that are already serving. Yes, you may need more volunteers, but if you cannot inspire and take care of the ones you have now, you will fall into the same constraints you have now. The best tool you have is the one in your toolbox.
Learn to develop and retain your volunteers with the three cornerstones of volunteer appreciation: communication, gratitude, and care.
1) Communication: cast a vision and create a two-way dialogue
Chances are pretty good you have volunteers now, but are you communicating with them effectively to cast a compelling vision? While a lack of vision fosters apathy amongst volunteers, a clear vision can motivate them to new heights.
In his book Visioneering, pastor Andy Stanely writes, “Vision casting will always include an element of waking people out of their apathy. Vision casters rarely bring new information to the table. What they bring is an impassioned concern about an existing problem. They bring fresh eyes.” Fresh eyes and impassioned concern are exactly what you need when you need to solve a problem. So how do you get there? By rallying the troops.
Creative ways to cast a vision
Even if you consider yourself an excellent communicator, the truth is, we could all get better at casting a vision to rally the “troops” and one of the best ways to do this is with tangible, visual reminders. Look for creative and unexpected ways to communicate the vision regularly both inside and outside your church or organization.
One idea is to write your vision statement on 11×17 glossy and cardstock posters and hang them throughout your building. 11×17 is an easy size to frame and display and big enough to make an impact, but you can always go larger if you want, too!
Another way to go is to employ an artist in your church design wartime-era, U.S. propaganda-style posters “urging people on to victory.” Hang these in offices and bathrooms and around entrances and doors with regular traffic.
Once you leave the building, the job doesn’t end. Send volunteers custom folded cards to remind them why they are doing what you’ve asked them to do and the impact of their efforts. Communicate what the consequences would be if you stopped your mission, and use encouraging language to keep them encouraged and inspired.
Finally, I’ve seen many churches use signage in their parking lots that say “You are now entering a mission field.” Doing so reminds people of the “why” behind their activities as they enter the building and puts them in a positive frame of mind to serve. Things like banners, banner stands, and yard signs work great for this purpose.
Fostering a two-way dialogue
As Andy Stanley says, “Vision leaks.” Commit to putting the vision before your people every day and do it with passion. Once you’ve done that, you want to focus on the next element of communication: fostering a two-way dialogue.
You may be confident in your vision and mission, and communicating it regularly and effectively to your team, but if they aren’t given a chance to voice their thoughts (and you aren’t willing to listen), all your efforts can fall flat.
Be willing to get feedback from people serving on the front lines and demonstrate this by asking for suggestions and recognizing good ideas on a regular basis. One way to get feedback is to ask volunteers to fill out 4×6 folded cards with their suggestions and turn them in during meetings or service. Doing so keeps the lines of communication open and makes people feel they are appreciated and heard. You can also send folded cards after a big effort or event asking for specific feedback.
Remember that creating a two-way dialog with volunteers means you may get ideas you don’t agree with or feedback you don’t enjoy. Stay humble, and respond appropriately. You don’t have to agree with everyone, but you do have to be kind and recognize their contributions. Finally, when a suggestion is actionable, let the volunteer who named it lead the effort, and thank them for it!
2. Gratitude: say thank-you and recognize contributions
Volunteers give so much of their time and energy to push your vision forward and without them we wouldn’t achieve much at all. For this reason is it vital the leadership foster volunteer appreciation on a daily basis.
Say thank-you (and do it regularly)
Print plenty of 4×6 greeting cards with inspiring, heartfelt messages and keep them on hand to send volunteers each Monday with a handwritten thank you note. Look for an “MVP” volunteer or someone who went above and beyond and call it out with a card. Making this a habit each week will create an atmosphere of appreciation and respect, and most people really enjoy getting a personal note. If you miss the window to send a card one week, don’t fret – just pick up the phone and make a call to say thanks!
Recognize and celebrate contributions with fun events and rewards
In addition to weekly thank-you notes, hosting a volunteer appreciation event is a valuable way to stay connected and recognize their worth. Make it fun and something your volunteers will actually want to attend. You could do tacky prom, 80s skate night at the roller rink, or with the holidays approaching, an ugly sweater party. You could also ask your volunteer ministry leaders to casually field suggestions.
Once you set up the event, make it special. Print 5×5 x 8×5 invitations and mail them to volunteers with a personal note explaining why their presence is wanted. If you can make a couple references to their exact contribution, whether to a specific effort or overall through their attitude and dedication, it will mean that much more.
For times when you want to do something special but don’t have time to plan an event, you can always do something simple. At our church, we give out the “POT” award. Drawing from the example in Luke 7 when a woman anoints the feet of Jesus with an alabaster jar of oil, we took a broken clay pot, put it into a glass case, and gave it to volunteers because they have given so much, or poured themselves out in service. You can find your own examples in scripture to model a meaningful token of appreciation after, or do something completely original. The most important thing is that it comes from the heart.
3. Care: create a community that gives back
If communication and gratitude are in place, the final cornerstone of appreciating and retaining volunteers is to connect them to a life-giving community where they can thrive, grow and be cared for and encouraged. When an organization loses volunteers, if it’s not due to a family or life stage issue, the other main reason volunteers tend to check out is because of a lack of connection, and creating a strong community can go a long way in building and maintaining that connection.
Keeping the community connected
An effective way to stay connected is to send out a monthly newsletter with volunteer stories and life updates. Did someone have a baby? Get married? Lose a family member? Communicate these things each month so volunteers can support, celebrate, and take care of each other. Brochures work well for this purpose and are often just the right size for a monthly update.
In addition to monthly updates, you may also want to send quarterly “service newsletters” to remind the team of what has been accomplished and what is on the horizon. Printed catalogs are great for this kind of thing, offer enough space to include lots of content, and feel much more distinctive than an email. Personalize your quarterly newsletters by adding quotes from volunteers and highlighting exceptional contributions. You may even want to get volunteers to write one of them!
In addition to giving regular updates on the mission, vision, and community, foster relationships by opening the door to serve your volunteers and give back to them just like you would the community. It’s vital to give back, especially when volunteers are experiencing a challenging time or crisis. If you have volunteer team leaders, make sure they keep an ear to the ground regarding what is going on in volunteers’ lives and give leaders permission to do what is necessary to care for their teams. Build “give back” teams and surprise volunteers in need with acts of support in times of need. It’s one of the most important things you can do to show you care.
Following these 3 cornerstones of volunteer appreciation will ensure you take the time to build a strong foundation for your “house” and pave the way to grow in strength, numbers, and passion for years to come and retain more and better people along the way.
Finally, an additional benefit of appreciating your people is one many fail to remember: you’ll be creating a deep and long pipeline of future organizational leaders. Not surprisingly, the best leaders in our church have always come from our volunteer base!
With the holidays and New Year around the corner, it’s a perfect time to practice volunteer appreciation. Start now and save 15% off when you buy 2 or more select product categories using coupon code MYVOLUNTEERS.*
* Offer expires 1/31/15 @ 11:59pm. Use coupon code MYVOLUNTEERS to get 15% off your purchase of any two or more of the following product categories: Brochures, Catalogs, Folded Cards, Glossy and Cardstock Posters, Greeting Cards, Invitations. Discount excludes custom quote requests and all add-on options and services. Offer cannot be applied to previous purchases and cannot be redeemed for cash or used in combinations with any other offer. Please view our full Terms and Conditions.