The Worst Volunteer Experience. Ever.

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The worst volunteer experience I ever had was scrubbing bathrooms – sans gloves – at a transitional housing center, while a resident bellowed, “WHY are you HERE?”

I wasn’t expecting a glamorous experience, but I had gone into it hoping to feel appreciated and, at a minimum, safe. I left feeling bewildered and grateful that I would never have to go back.

That wasn’t the last time I put my cleaning skills to use for a good cause, though. One of my best volunteer experiences was cleaning a Boston park with a BC alumni group. Not only did I have gloves (my own – we were given a list of exactly what to bring and wear), but they provided us with (donated) matching t-shirts, and suggested a bar where volunteers could meet up post-cleanup. I spent 6 hours picking up broken beer bottles and cigarette butts and still remember it fondly as a good experience, and something I would do again.

With volunteerism on the rise, many nonprofits are thinking about how to attract and retain good volunteers. This effort shouldn’t start with marketing, it should start with creating a good experience.

I suspect that very few volunteers operate from pure altruism. Most are trying to get something out of the experience – whether it is the satisfaction that comes from making a positive difference in the world, or a desire to meet new people, teach their children the importance of giving back, or even just to fulfill service-hour requirements for a school or church group.

This presents an opportunity for nonprofits to tap into those other motivations, and create and promote an experience that benefits volunteers. Some nonprofits may recoil at the idea of “catering” to volunteers – (Aren’t they here to help US?), but keeping volunteers is a lot easier than attracting them in the first place, as long as you give them a reason to keep coming back.

For nonprofits looking to take advantage of increased interest in volunteering, here are few questions to ask:

-Who are you trying to reach, and what motivates them?

-Do your volunteer experiences meet the needs of your prospective volunteers? (Can you create family-friendly opportunities? Work with local schools and churches to design service projects that meet their requirements? Design opportunities that have a social element?)

-Do your volunteers have a good experience? (Ask them!)

-Do your volunteers know they are appreciated? (I once received a thank-you note from a student at a school I helped repaint. If they need me again, I’m there.)

-Do you invite them back?