by Vickie Pleus, APR, CPRC, President, VP Communications
This month, I welcome my colleague Vickie Pleus to share her insight into the value of diving deeper into volunteer satisfaction and why it's important to measure.
Vickie is a public-relations professional and has worked with nonprofits for many years. As such, she has a unique perspective on communication between staff and volunteers. I know you'll appreciate her take on this.
I recently orchestrated and executed a first-time fundraising event for a nonprofit client. Through several months of planning, the volunteer steering committee devoted hours of time and their own money to ensure its success.
When it was all said and done, however, I realized it really wasn’t.
I’ll spare you a long story detailing the months of planning it involved – it would be no surprise to you – and simply tell you that the event exceeded every goal: ticket sales, sponsorship commitments, revenue and partnerships.
What I wasn’t sure of, however, was how it fared in the category of “volunteer satisfaction.” In my experience, nonprofit leaders often make assumptions about their volunteers’ satisfaction and the volunteers' subsequent interest in continuing in their roles (which, as an aside, often are unclear or presumed to be never-ending, but that’s a post for another day). The assumptions largely include overvaluing the volunteer’s understanding of and buy-in to the organizations’ mission and undervaluing a volunteer’s need to be appreciated, including what kinds of demonstrations of appreciation matter most to them.
As for the event I recently completed for my client, my same concerns bubbled up again as they have for years. The volunteer committee for this organization is a fundraising committee whose seats are perpetual until a volunteer chooses to leave. Meanwhile, the next fundraising event is only two months away. I caught myself wondering how many of these volunteers will stick around for the next one. I decided to ask.
As I write this, the volunteers have a survey in their in-boxes, which includes questions about their intention to continue service, their opinion of how they were managed and perspectives on the event itself.
I have participated in countless nonprofit fundraising events as an organizer and volunteer, and none have formally asked volunteers’ opinions or viewpoint afterward. Most times, there’s not even a meeting! Countless experts recommend asking volunteers what they think, but I wonder why the nonprofits I’ve worked with don’t do it? Why aren’t we automatically incorporating volunteer satisfaction surveys/ discussions/meetings over coffee after events or when big projects conclude?
Like a child who brings home a report card from school, professionals typically know their grades. (Did we make goal? Did we make the paper? Is my board happy?) But, who among us with kids doesn’t look at the teacher’s comments on that report card too? That’s where the REAL data lurk! (Forget the letter grades, we want to know if Timmy is respectful, on time and a good listener!)
Gauging volunteer satisfaction and experiences don’t have to be a harrowing proposition, and it doesn’t take a lot of time. (Check out SurveyMonkey.com for user-friendly templates, for example).
Here are three reasons nonprofits should survey volunteers after significant events or projects:
Allowing volunteers to share their experiences reduces burnout. Studies show that volunteers want to be heard and that listening is rare.1 That’s not a good combo. Studies also show that empathy leads to lower burnout; listening to others keeps them engaged and productive longer. 2 So, in this case, 1 plus 1 equals WIN.
Surveys provide closure. Surveying volunteers puts a bow on the package and closes the books on an event or project so that mental energy can be used on the next. Closing out a project properly benefits volunteers and staff by documenting strengths and weakness of a project plan and perceived successes and failures, while allowing participants to let go and move on. And, if the same project comes around again, (say, annually), the data now in place are great starting points for additional success.
We need our assumptions challenged. We all know what assuming does (makes an a** out of you and me!), and a survey is our chance to stand corrected. We all view experiences through our own lenses, and expertise has an ego. Psychologists have long-studied a bias called the “false consensus effect.” The false consensus is in action when we assume others agree with our experiences.3 Why not find out for certain? When we ask volunteers about their experiences, we can take their word for it and use that information to become more empowered for the next interaction.
I’m hopeful that all the volunteers who received my volunteer satisfaction survey will complete it honestly and check my assumptions, and that upon completing it they feel they had a chance to voice their perspectives. Our next challenge may be filling some committee seats, but it’s still better than not knowing why they’re occupied in the first place.
What other suggestions can you share for measuring volunteer satisfaction? Comment below!