Home Books Resources Articles Workshops Contact Links
Volunteer Power!


How to Motivate Volunteers

The Top Motivation and Retention Winners

by Thomas W. McKee

A humorous and effective training game that I often have participants play is the feedback game. I have the participants line up on an imaginary line in the training room. I mark one end of the line as January 1st and the other end of the line December 31st. Then I ask the participants to get up out of their seats (this works great when we have a class of about 25 students) and line up on that line according to the day and month of their birthday in relationship to everyone else in the room. The only rule is that they cannot communicate to anyone about their birthdays. They can only guess.

The January babies immediately go to one end and the December babies the other. Everyone else is trying to figure where they stand. After a few minutes of trying to figure out their places on the line, I ask them to speak to each other and take their proper place. In most situations, over half of the people have to change places.

When they have taken their spot, with everyone standing in the proper place, then I say: "If you forget everything else I say today—don't forget this. When you get back to your seat, write it down. This one statement can change how you manage and motivate people. The statement is this: 'Without feedback you don't know where you stand.'"

Of the many motivators, the number one motivator is feedback—and it's free. It doesn't cost a thing.

Positive Feedback—the Number One Motivator

I then ask if any of them coach little league or soccer. Several always raise their hands. I ask them if they wait until the rewards banquet to give feedback. They say, "No way." I ask them when they give feedback and the coaches say, "Every day—all the time." That is essential for great coaching.

Positive feedback is a great motivator. I was serving on a search committee for an organization and was getting discouraged with the process. It was taking much too long for me and I felt as if I wasn't a fit on the committee. I began to think that the committee would get along better without me and was thinking of resigning.

I was out of town on business for one of our weekly meetings and while flying back home I drafted a letter of resignation. I was going to send it out the next week, but when I got home and opened my mail I got the following short note in the mail.

Dear Tom:

We really missed you at our last meeting. I appreciate your input into our discussions and how much we all depend on your expertise. Thanks.


I didn't write my letter of resignation.

Personal, thank you notes (not e-mail) are a wonderful way to say thank you. E-mail thank you is better than nothing. At least it is feedback. But the short, very specific thank you note says volumes. At the California State Railroad Museum each paid supervisor has 200 thank you cards at the beginning of the year and they must have used them all (thanking volunteers) by the end of the year. No wonder they have waiting lists for volunteers.

Try the following assignment for one month.


  • Write down each volunteer that you supervise. ·
  • Put a number by the number of tasks they do a month (i.e. 50). ·
  • Write down the number of times each week you recognize a person for that task (i.e. 2). ·
  • Subtract the second number (i.e. 2) from the first number (i.e. 50) = 98. ·
  • Try to close the gap.
  • Think of how many ways you can give them feedback.

    Give Regular Rewards and Recognition

    Another effective way to stimulate the inner motivation is through rewards and recognition. It is important that we understand the difference between these two terms. People often confuse them.

    Recognition: Recognize a person for the job they were recruited to do. I volunteered to arrange the meetings for the last year, and I did my job. I am recognized for doing this job.

    Reward: Recognize a person for going far above what was asked. Mary volunteered to arrange the meetings for the last year and planned ten outstanding programs. Our attendance doubled because Mary arranged for outstanding programs. She had us go to the zoo with our families and friends. We had fantastic speakers who donated their time. She did it all under budget, and with a growing membership, the organization increased its income. Mary was rewarded for doing much more than we expected and when she was given the reward, all of the membership gave her a standing ovation. No one questions the value of the reward. The president of our organization called Mary and her husband up at her last meeting and gave her an engraved plaque for her office and two tickets to "Phantom of the Opera."

    The following are some recognition and reward programs that organizations have found effective:

  • Graduation certificate
  • Five year, ten year, fifteen-year pins/plaques
  • Outstanding volunteer reward in each department
  • Published results
  • Free coffee and food
  • Lending library

    Send Volunteers to Conferences

    One of the mistakes we can make is to announce a training program for our volunteers. Many people who volunteer feel that they know how to do their job. People who lead effective businesses often think that they are well trained to lead a volunteer team. However, managing a volunteer team is very different than managing employees. How do we motivate them to learn? I have had to stand before a board of directors who were at a retreat where the executive director had decided to put in a four hour board training program. As a trainer it is not an easy job to teach people who feel that they already know what you are teaching. This is a real problem. How do we solve this problem?

    One is to put money in your budget to send your leaders to conferences. Most conferences are at resort towns and offer a get away. They are filled with activities and helpful seminars for the volunteer leaders. I have spoken and led workshops at these conferences, and the enthusiasm is high. People leave pumped and filled with ideas. Most of all they network with other volunteers just like them who are struggling with some of the same issues. They exchange ideas.

    These conferences offer two benefits: training and motivation.

    The American Society of Association Executives and the state chapters offer continual training. As a regular trainer for these conferences, I see volunteer board members who are challenged and encouraged as we work together. The California Travel Parks Association sends its President to the CalSAE (California Society of Association Executives) training sessions. I talked with their president after attending one of these sessions, and he was excited.

    Provide On-the-job Vocational Training

    Student interns are another source of volunteers. Some students will work for an organization to add the experience to their resume when they graduate. Other students get college credit. I find that when I talk about student interns, I get a lot of groans from volunteer managers who have had nothing but trouble with student interns. The interns have been unreliable and frankly caused more stress and problems than having a full-time employee. The problem is the lack of passion and motivation. If the intern is not passionate about your cause, it is just a job—a job in which they don't get paid. They are in your place of business for a grade. And some students don't care if they get a "C" when we want "A" work.

    We need to follow all of the recruiting techniques we follow with other volunteers, and perhaps add a few more. In addition to developing a very specific position charter, we could also develop a signed letter of agreement. The letter of agreement would spell out the terms of the contract and include the following information:

  • Appearance/dress/uniform expectation
  • Performance expectations (i.e. four hours one day a week/on time)
  • Policy on absenteeism
  • Lines of communication
  • Volunteer manual containing policies and procedures
  • Career path
  • Performance reviews
  • Privileges and perks

    Be Available to Volunteers

    I hear this one all the time from the paid staff of an organization—whether the Girl Scouts, hospital staff, or local churches. Volunteers expect to spend time visiting with the paid staff. And often the paid staff get frustrated with the interruptions. But spending time with these volunteers will help enormously with their morale and motivation.

    One successful organization invites the volunteers to the staff coffee times during breaks to spend time interacting with them. Then as they walk back to their workstations the staff takes a few minutes (usually not more than about 90 seconds) to comment on their work and how much they appreciated it. The wise staff member will make it a point of being very specific by saying, "Connie, thanks so much for that report you prepared for me last week. I was able to use the information you provided to write this article for our national publication and the article will be coming out next month. I'll be sure you get a copy." When the article is published, send Connie a copy with a handwritten message across the top of the page saying, "I couldn't have written this without your help."

    Provide Free Food

    What is it about food that is a motivator? This is true in the workplace as well as with volunteers. One summer I was leading management workshops in five locations of a government agency. Headquarters was concerned about the lack of motivation in the five offices. And their concerns were founded. But what I found, and I spent about three days in each branch office, was that four of the places were dead and one was alive. The difference—food!

    Offering free snacks for our volunteers will go a long way in motivating and encouraging volunteers. Bringing bagels, donuts and fruit to a volunteer meeting, or refreshments to a long evening meeting is a winner. My wife and I belong to a monthly volunteer committee that meets once a month at 5:30 p.m. We all leave our places of work and have either Pizza or Sub sandwiches waiting for us when we arrive. I don't know how many times I have been tempted to skip our 5:30 meeting because I had had a really rough day. When I thought of the great food our chairperson always brought, it was just enough incentive to be faithful—and frankly some days I needed that incentive.

    Have Fun

    Fun is the great motivator. Volunteer work can be stressful. And fun is one of the most effective stress busters. Groups that play ball together, golf together, take a hike together, or even just have pizza together (food again), stay together.

    Too often leaders who are passionate about their cause, forget to laugh. We become so serious about our causes and our mission, that we forget to have fun. Tom Peters says, "The number one premise of business is that it need not be boring or dull. It ought to be fun. If it's not fun, you're wasting your life." I have to admit that this is one of the areas of leadership that I struggle with the most. I often became so involved in the daily running of an organization, meeting payroll, paying bills, meeting the expectations of members, and managing employees, that I would not lighten up.

    According to some sources, eighty percent of all illness is due to stress. Oh, people get pneumonia, bronchitis, and the flu, but the primary reason the majority of people get sick is because stress shuts off the immune system. And people are stressed! But laughter is a great stress buster.

    John F. Kennedy said, "There are three things which are real: God, human folly and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension. So we must do what we can with the third."

    Hire Staff That Are Committed to Volunteers

    In most non-profit organizations, we depend on volunteers to carry out our mission. The role of the staff is to provide the resources for the volunteer staff. At the Sacramento Railroad Museum they do not differentiate between paid staff and volunteer staff. They are equal.

    When I hire paid staff, I always asked these questions:

  • What is your experience in working with volunteers?
  • How have you handled volunteers who don't follow through?
  • How have you increased your effectiveness with the work of volunteers?
  • Tell me about an exciting experience you have had in working side by side with a volunteer in your past work experience.
  • Tell me about an unsuccessful experience you had in working with a volunteer in your last job.

    I am looking for staff that have a high commitment to volunteers and working with them. If they say that they haven't worked with volunteers and have not had any experience, then we have to talk about one of the most important aspects of their job as a bookkeeper, a receptionist, a secretary, or curator is the responsibility to work closely with volunteers. If the person has not had any experience, then I am taking a chance on that person. As I listen to their answers to the questions, I listen to "volunteer attitude." A positive volunteer attitude is absolutely essential for all of my staff.

    What is Motivation?

    We have all probably heard that there is nothing we can do to motivate someone because motivation is an inside job. That is a true statement; however, there is a lot we can do to stimulate that inner motivation. Try some of these stimulators: feedback, rewards, recognition, conferences, time, free food and fun.

    Would you like to publish this article for free in your newsletter?
    Click here to find out how.