volunteer commitment

Boost Volunteer Commitment Without All the Nagging

Lack of volunteer commitment and follow through was a common pain point we heard from respondents in our Volunteer Management Progress Report survey.

For many, it feels like finding dependable volunteers is an uphill battle that’s getting worse. But, without committed volunteers showing up as planned, how can you get the work done and meet your goals?

The good news is there’s an answer. You can do one thing to build in back up for no-shows, increase mutual volunteer accountability, and focus on your key outcomes.

Achieve it all by building volunteer teams.

What the heck?! You ask. We already are a team. That won’t make a difference!

What we really need is different people! People who are more committed and organized. People who have extra time on their hands. People who care. People who aren’t (sorry to have to say this) flakes.

But, the problem isn’t the volunteers or their lack of character. More often, the problem is the way you have things set up and the way you support (or don’t) volunteers.

Let me suggest another way of approaching the issue of volunteer productivity. Try a structured team-based approach.

I’m not recommending you do this willy nilly, though. It must be done with thought and purpose.  But, if you do it right, in the end you can step back and watch volunteers autonomously and joyfully bring your mission to life.

Volunteer Teams: A Distinct Advantage

There are a number of reasons why volunteer teams edge out individual volunteer roles. Teams have built in support systems. If someone needs a day off or can’t complete a task, there’s always someone who can back them up. If someone gets overwhelmed, the can phone a friend. By default, these boost volunteer commitment.

When volunteers teams are assigned tasks — versus individual volunteers working in isolation — their capacity is strengthened. People with diverse skill sets can multiply their capabilities merely by having more heads around a problem or task.

The power of our instinctual, tribal nature can also be tapped in teams, if done carefully and with thought toward preventing any isolationist tendencies. Both healthy competition and cross-team alliances can be cultivated through a regular practice of gratitude.  

Finally, volunteers who develop plans and work on projects together become accountable to one another. After all, who wants to let their friends down?

The Differences Between Individual Volunteers and Team-based Volunteering

volunteer commitment

Prerequisites for Robust Participation

Teams, by their very nature, cultivate participation and volunteer commitment. According to a two-and-a-half year qualitative research project, the Pathways through Participation report, there are several basic things which must be in place for community members to get involved. (This project was funded by the UK’s Big Lottery Fund and led by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) in partnership with the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) and Involve.)

Volunteer Commitment Boosters:

  • Personal Motivations: People often have multiple motivations for participating. People gain as well as give when they participate.
  • Triggers: For some, these triggers are just a passing influence; for others these emerge as critical moments in their lives – turning points for their future as well as specific motivations for how they participate.
  • Resources: The drivers of participation (personal motivations and triggers) were tempered by people’s access to resources.
  • Opportunities: Providing the environment, conditions and opportunities for an individual to translate their motivation to participate into action.
  • Personal Networks: Strong bonds within groups (bonding social capital) and between groups (bridging social capital) are important to all areas of an individual’s life, including their participation. Wider social networks support the success of an individual’s participation, providing access to resources, knowledge, connections and decision-makers.

The good news is the formation of teams can bring to fruition many of these requirements. Team members asking others to join serves as triggers. Access to resources can be compounded when more people, with more connections, are brought together. Opportunities abound for teams to make a deeper impact than an individual can working alone — or, at the very least, they are more visible to the larger group.  

Finally, when volunteers work in teams, they build their bonding capital as they form relationships with fellow team members. And, they bridge capital when they are called upon to collaborate with another team or department. It is the formation of social capital like this that can promote more effective outcomes, improve group cohesion, and inspire even more pro-social behavior like volunteering and giving.

When volunteers work in teams, they generate the basic ingredients for a recipe of participation.  In other words, they become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But, not without the proper foundation and support.

4 Elements for Successful Volunteer Commitment Follow Through

There are four necessary elements to ensure teams have a good chance at success and that you’re experiencing high levels of volunteer commitment. Staff who lead volunteers should help teams develop these and ensure they take hold.  

1. Agreed Upon Norms

Team members must be accountable to both the organization and each other. By pulling together, they can accomplish the team goals. But, they will struggle if they don’t have a common set of expectations and ways of conducting business. Team norms help codify “how we do things.”

Some examples of team norms are …

  • Actively participate and listen
  • Rotate in and out of team roles
  • Recruit and help orient members
  • Communicate openly and honestly
  • Work for consensus
  • Be a willing learner and teacher
  • Help develop and abide by Business Case, Team Charter, Work Plan
  • Be accountable to teammates

2. A Team Facilitator

The team facilitator is responsible for keeping the team moving forward through support and awareness. While people in this role are more effective when they have leadership skills, they are not leaders or managers in the traditional sense. Rather, facilitators act as a guide. They keep meetings going and remind members of the norms and accountabilities, but don’t participate in key team debates or decision making.

Team facilitators are responsible for things like …

  • Maintaining ground rules
  • Modeling collaboration
  • Motivating others to stretch their thinking
  • Reminding group of team charter
  • Facilitating group consensus & problem solving
  • Asking individual volunteers to take on specific tasks
  • Encouraging the team to use their own strengths
  • Calling for breaks, as needed

There’s not a lot of glory in facilitating. So, teams can decide to rotate the assignment amongst team members so that no one finds themselves out of the loop for long.

3. A Team Charter

Team Charters are documents that define the purpose of the team, how it will work, and the expected outcomes. It is a written agreement between the team and the organization and establishes expectations and roles for both.

They are “roadmaps” that the team and its sponsors create at the beginning of the journey to make sure all involved understand where they’re heading, and how to find direction when times get tough.

The Charter defines the purpose of the team, how it will work, and its expected outcomes. For teams to get off “on the right foot,” Team Charters should be developed by the team when it forms. The act of developing the Charter helps focus the team on the right things from the very start. 

Teams Charters can include …

  • Team name
  • Mission or vision statement that acts as a “north star”
  • Main goals the team hope to achieve — why it exists in the first place
  • The scope and limitations of the team’s work (what is and is not included)
  • The team’s ground rules or norms
  • The roles and responsibilities for various team members, including the facilitator and any staff members who support the team
  • How leadership and power will be shared amongst members
  • What group decision-making process the team will use
  • How the team plans to manage and resolve conflict when it inevitably arises
  • Resources to get the work done and a budget, if necessary to their success
  • The authority to act independently, but within the scope of the Charter

It’s a living document that can evolve as team and project progress. It can also be useful if a team is in trouble and needs to regain a “big picture” view. Instating this document is a great way to boost volunteer commitment.

4. A Work Plan

Finally, teams need a realistic action plan to get the work done. Work plans come in many shapes and sizes, but should be simple enough to understand and specific enough to communicate accountability for tasks.

Work Plans might include …

  • Goals & objectives of project or team for a specific time period (these can always be renewed on a regular basis for ongoing work)
  • Critical success factors (how will the team know they are successful)
  • Key milestones or goals
  • An action plan for who will do what by when
  • A plan to evaluate how their work is going and where the team can improve

This may seem like a lot of work up front, and it is. But, the investment will pay off in the end.

The more volunteer team members work together to develop their norms, charter, and action plan, the better they will understand and trust one another – the more they will commit. The more they share the responsibility for facilitating their work, the more they will be accountable to their own progress.

The Volunteer Manager’s Role  

Volunteer managers should also be prepared for bumps in the road. Teams will often struggle to get off the ground, particularly at the beginning. Most pass through a storming phase as they grapple with pinpointing the problems they need to solve. This establishes how they will function independently and together, and helps in deciding what leadership model they will ultimately accept.

This is to be expected. And, it is at this critical juncture, support from the volunteer manager is the most important. But, rather than leading from the front, staff must resist the urge to offer all the answers. Rather, reflect back what you see, provide resources and encouragement, and help the team talk through its options for dealing with the issue at hand. Giving the team space to weather these issues on their own increases volunteer commitment.

The Tuckman Stages of Group Formation, a model of group development, was first proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965, who maintained that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for the team to grow, face challenges, tackle problems, find solutions, plan work, and deliver results. It is the job of the volunteer manager to help the team move through these stages successfully.

When teams are formed, the individual’s behavior is driven by a desire to be accepted by the others, and avoid controversy or conflict. Serious issues and feelings are avoided, and people focus on being busy with routines, such as team organization, who does what, when to meet each other, etc. Individuals are also gathering information and impressions.

This is a comfortable stage to be in, but the avoidance of conflict and threat means not much actually gets done.

Tuckman Model

volunteer commitment

As the team becomes more comfortable with one another, team members will open up and confront each other’s ideas and perspectives. The storming stage is necessary to the growth of the team. It can be contentious, unpleasant, and even painful to members who are averse to conflict.

This is where staff can model what’s required to be a contributing member. Tolerance of each team member and their differences should be emphasized. Without tolerance and patience, the team will fail.

As teams transition to their normal routine, the volunteer manager can gradually step away to allow it to grow on its own. Now is the time to highlight what the team has achieved to others in the organization and celebrate your success.

So, give volunteer teams a try — start small with one team at a time and see how it goes. As you build momentum, add more teams, and soon you’ll find lack of volunteer commitment is no longer a pressing issue.