How to manage, motivate and inspire community volunteers

Crew2 H4H

This week, TOPS employees have joined efforts to help build a house with Habitat for Humanity, a charity that helps provide affordable housing for deserving families (That's my group above - Crew Two, taking a break from work to immortalize the moment). I learned a lot of things from this experience. For example, did you know that Habitat for Humanity is the 6th largest home builder in America today (and the 3rd largest privately held builder)? Me neither!

Walking on to a Habitat for Humanity job site for the first time was an enlightening experience. There was only one paid Habitat employee on the entire lot: John, the General Contractor. A half-dozen regular volunteers were also there to help out, including Sue, our main volunteer coordinator. (Imagine a small woman, all of 5 feet, 3 inches, in a bright pink shirt advertising some long ago home building event. She has a giant smile on her face and perched on top of her head is a white hard hat with her name SUE written in large letters in Sharpie across the top. She is clearly in charge.) From John and Sue, I learned a ton about Habitat for Humanity and how to finish a room, but there was an even more valuable lesson that I learned, and that is how to manage, motivate and inspire volunteers.

In the CAM industry, we often talk about how hard it is to GET community volunteers. But one of the things we don't talk about a lot is how to help retain the ones we've got. Let me share with you the lessons I learned:

Lesson #1:
Volunteers need to understand (and appreciate) the cause

One of the first things Sue did was explain to us how Habitat for Humanity works. Having spent some time perusing the website, I thought I had it all down, and was ready with an answer to her first question, "How many homes did Habitat for Humanity give away last year?" My answer was wrong, dead wrong. Because it was a trick question.


Volunteer coordinator Sue
(also a volunteer herself) 

The true number of houses Habitat gives away is a big fat zero. It's not a free ride. Not only are the potential homeowners required to put in hundreds of hours of 'sweat equity' to get their own home, at the end of the day, they are rewarded with the keys to the new home and a shiny new 30 year mortgage. So why are we doing this? Because the families that Habitat builds for are right in that sticky spot between above the poverty line and too poor to qualify for a standard bank loan. Habitat empowers them with a way to provide a home for their family.

In a homeowners association, it's also important for your volunteers to understand the cause they are serving. The health and happiness of every single person in the community is dependant on how well each volunteer serving on the board of directors does their job. This is the kind of job that may go thankless in the community itself. Homeowners may only notice the Board when they have a complaint. Your community volunteers need to understand the importance of their cause, and be willing to get behind it. One of the best ways you can help them do this is by reminding board members of the reason they volunteered in the first place, and the reason why serving their community is a noble cause.

Lesson #2:
Volunteers need to have 'skin in the game'

One interesting phenomena about homeowners in Habitat for Humanity homes is that they tend to be very active in local charities. They seem to take a special kind of pride and ownership in their community. Perhaps, because they played such a large role in helping to build others homes, as well as meeting all of the other people who come together to help them build their own home, they have a little more 'skin in the game' than the average homeowner. The home, and the community at large, means a little more to them.

We would all do well to learn a lesson from this. If our community volunteers put in the 'sweat equity' to improve the community, they will feel more ownership for it, and therefore, will be more passionate to see it succeed.

Lesson #3:
Volunteers need to be told what is needed from them

For a new volunteer on the job site, nothing is more frustrating than standing around watching others work hard while you check your fingernail polish. You're not trying to be rude, you just don't know what you can do to help, so you try to help by staying out of the way. If your community volunteers feel this way, you have a problem.

When a new volunteer comes on board, it is vital that you educate them immediately on what is needed from them, and give them at least one task they can take on right away, no matter how small, so they can feel useful. One good way to ease new volunteers into a position is to create a binder with a 'job description' and all of the basic information they will need to get started on their specific job (here is a quick primer to get you started). But remember, even if you hand them that binder, find one thing, however small, that they can do right away to contribute. This makes the new volunteer immediately feel like a useful, contributing member of the whole group, instead of an awkward 5th wheel.

Lesson #4:
Volunteers need to be given the proper tools and training on how to efficiently accomplish tasks

Sue escorted me into the house and showed me the job I would be doing for the morning - scraping spackle and sanding down doors. As she explained the job, she named each tool and showed me how to properly use it. I never realized there was a right way and a wrong way to use a sandpaper-wrapped sponge, but now I know. John showed me the difference between wet sanding and dry sanding, and explained when each was appropriate. Armed with this knowledge, and the proper tools, I was able to take on the entire project with confidence.

It's important for a community volunteer to have confidence in the job they are doing. If they are unclear about what to do or how to do it, they can hold back and not put in as much effort as they might when they are confident that they understand how to do what needs to be done. Give your community volunteers the gift of confidence by encouraging them to attend board member training, and introducing them to the tools they need to use to get their jobs done.

Lesson #5:
Volunteers need permission to take breaks

I haven't done construction work before, so I cannot tell if this is a standard in the industry, or just something Sue enacted, but we did have mandatory breaks. It took a bit for all of us to break off from what we were doing and relax for a couple of minutes to talk about the job, meet the new homeowners whose house we were building and share a box of granola bars, but taking a break had an interesting effect. We were no longer a bunch of different people working on different tasks in the same vicinity - we were a TEAM, working together toward a common goal. Getting back to work after the break we were all more energized and eager to get back to work and get this house move-in ready.

I think we can all take a page from Habitat for this idea. Schedule a social function where community volunteers can take a break and celebrate the work they are doing, and the reasons for it. Let this remind every volunteer of what they are striving to achieve and how their continued efforts contribute to the success of the whole community.

Lesson #6:
Volunteers need to be told when they are doing a good job

Regardless of why any person volunteers for any activity, there is a pride in a job well done. Whether you are sanding doors or conducting a board meeting, it helps to hear that you are doing it right from someone else.

Take the time to let your community volunteers know when they do a good job. I don't mean the awkward 'We appreciate you giving back to the community' speech that nobody really knows the right way to respond to without sounding pompous, I am talking about the little specific things that this one volunteer did. Pay attention, and when they find a particularly clever solution to a problem, or handle an angry homeowner in a particularly smooth manner, or even if it is something as simple as them always showing up a few minutes early, let them know that you noticed, and appreciate them for it.



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