The Blog

Seven Simple Steps for Volunteer Success for Genealogy Societies

I have come to believe there are some basic rules that Genealogy Societies and all nonprofits need to follow in order to be successful with their volunteers. In keeping with my earlier article, I've kept my suggestion list to just seven steps.

Several folks have contacted me after reading my earlier article entitled "Scott's Seven Simple Steps to Genealogy Society Success" and asked what my thoughts are regarding one of the other critical aspects of Genealogy Societies, and other not-for-profit organizations, volunteers.

I have worked with volunteers, first as the coordinator of community outreach programs for a Fortune 100 company and then with a variety of local, national, and international nonprofit organizations for more than 30 years. In that time I have come to believe there are some basic rules that Genealogy Societies and all nonprofits need to follow in order to be successful with their volunteers. In keeping with my earlier article, I've kept my suggestion list to just seven steps.

But before I get to my Seven Steps, I will offer this titbit of advice: Don't be sure that 'all-volunteer' is the best, or only, way to go. I encounter many organizations that are rightly proud of their boast that they are a "100% volunteer' operation. Yes, it is good to have all the money you have go in support of your mission, but don't get caught missing your mission as a result of being dead-set against having any paid staff. Just as your organization cannot post a letter in the mail for free, you cannot always accomplish your goals, reach your organization's potential, and insure for the future through a purely volunteer format. Sadly, I have seen far too many organizations fade away into nothing due to a lack of volunteers to continue when the organizing core has 'aged out', the founder finally cried 'Uncle', or the often inevitable schisms occurred. It may just be that the best form is one with some level of paid support to keep all the efforts to accomplish your mission moving, active, and focused.

With that said, we all know that volunteers are the real foundations supporting many Genealogy Societies. We also know that these folks don't just appear on the doorstep looking for something to do or a mission to commit their free time to help. They also all don't stick around unless they feel fulfilled in their volunteer efforts. So it is important to focus some of your time, as the leader(s) of an organization that relies on volunteers, to the proper 'care and feeding' of your volunteers.

Hence, Scott's Seven Simple Steps for Volunteer Success with your Genealogy Society:

• Keep it fun and seek input early. Even the most mundane of volunteer 'opportunities' need to be made fun in some way. I spent some years as the Executive Director of a wildlife rehabilitation center. While there were some volunteer opportunities that were great fun, such as working with the eagles or the baby bobcats, several, such as having to clean the animals' enclosures, were anything but fun. However, I made sure that each shift of volunteers, especially for those tasked to less desirable jobs, got to have something fun at the end. A silly certificate, a cold drink and snack that was only for the cage cleaners, something to make it fun! Then I would make sure to ask each volunteer how it went. Not only did I gain valuable insight into future work details, needed repairs, etc. but I got to know how the volunteers were feeling about the work they were doing. It is always critical to hear how the volunteers are feeling, what they are 'sensing' about the organization , and what if any gossip they might be picking up.

• Keep the assignment short then ask for the re-up. Unless the assignment truly calls for a commitment of a specific duration via By-Laws, etc. such as a Board member or a Committee chair, make the initial assignments short. This helps insure a win-win. The volunteer feels good about completing their assignment and you get to quickly evaluate the 'fit'. Then you can go with your 'elevator speech' on re-upping for a return visit or new assignment. Remember, too, that volunteers do not need to be onsite for every assignment. With computers, Webinars, Skype, etc. your fans can volunteer and assist you with many work assignments with little regard for where their actual geographic location.

• Watch for that spark and then act on it. When you see that 'spark' of enthusiasm in a volunteer, jump on it! Don't delay and don't put it off. Ask them what it is that is making them excited. Follow that smile and you'll find where their heart is as a volunteer. Just don't be inclined to overreach too fast. I have seen organizations that want to move a first day volunteer to the Board of Directors after one hour on the volunteer assignment. Keep them engaged and excited, but all things need a bit of aging to be their best.

• Mentor/partner each of your new volunteers. I recommend always assigning a partner/mentor to each of your new volunteers. Have them be a tag-team on the first few assignments. The learning curve for the new volunteer will be shortened and by using the enthusiasm of some of your more seasoned volunteers, you can actually watch it rub off on the newbies. The mentor/partner can also be a good evaluator on the new volunteer's efforts, interests, etc, offer a second set of ears for the organization.

• Let the volunteer lead you to where they want to help. Contrary to what the catalogs tell us, one size does not fit all. I have seen multiple organizations that have volunteer ladders. While possibly a good idea, I find that all too often they lead to volunteers leaving an organization when they hit a set of jobs they do not care for, but are 'required' to do. Not everyone needs or wants to know every aspects of what you do to accomplish your mission. So listen up and let the volunteer help you slot them well. It will pay dividends in the long term.

• Look for partnerships to increase the potential flow of volunteers, the diversity of your volunteer cadre, and for variations in age and interests. These partnerships can be of a huge variety. This is when out-of-the-box thinking can really provide significant rewards in many ways. Think beyond the usual suspects of schools and the neighborhood. Look to businesses that have volunteer programs for employees. Look to organizations that compliment your work. Don't be afraid of 'losing' volunteers to a partnering organization, but look to enrich the opportunities for everyone. Look to fellow nonprofits that are in related fields. For genealogy, think museums, history societies, and the like. If you have a genealogy library, think about the colleges and universities that have digital training for the chance to turn your library into a digital library and enhance your reach and membership far beyond the walls of your physical library. Find that video club and they just might be able to help you get a leg up on YouTube videos and webinars. Also don't overlook youth. Even very young children can add great zest as volunteers; they usually bring adults along, and can build a connection to your mission at an early age and make it family-wide, something I have experienced personally in my own family with my grandsons.

• Thank personally. You can never thank your volunteers too much, so thank them often and thank them personally. While annual volunteer recognition events are wonderful, too often I see organizations using them as the only time they thank volunteers. A year is way too long to wait to say thanks! Do it at the end of every shift, the end of every project, the end of every volunteer effort, and then celebrate it all once a year. Everyone really appreciates being recognized for a job well done and those thanks should come, personally, from the very top of the organization. It only takes a moment and it benefits can last a lifetime!

So there are my seven steps/ideas on how to craft a truly meaningful relationship between your organization and your volunteers.

Good luck and happy recruiting!