When you’re in search of volunteers for your ministry, it’s easy to feel alone in your plight. The needs are often many; the solutions seemingly few. But the fact is, there are numerous organizations functioning solely due to the efforts of volunteers. From hospitals to food pantries to foster care agencies to humane societies, organizations everywhere recruit volunteers as the main means to complete their mission. And a lot of these organizations even have waiting lists. What are their secrets? Read on for these organizations’ surprising insights about recruiting and retaining volunteers — and see how those ideas translate to children’s ministry.
RECRUIT FROM YOUR POOL “We advertise our volunteer opportunities to our current campers,” says Jobe Lewis, recruitment and training manager for Group Workcamps Foundation in Loveland, Colorado, “because about 80 percent of our volunteers were involved in camp before they served.”
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This approach truly is planting seeds that may take time to blossom, but children’s ministers everywhere have seen it happen: A child participant grows into a ministry servant. So make a big deal of your teachers in front of your kids. Let them see now what a wonderful — and important — opportunity they’ll have to serve when they get older. Make serving in your ministry something kids look forward to being “big” enough to do. Then recruit them as soon as they can serve.
ADVERTISE “Get the word out that you’re looking,” advises Karen Blanchard, executive director for Providence Ministries for the Needy in Holyoke, Massachussetts.
In a ministry setting where children’s safety is top priority, you may not want to advertise as broadly as some organizations do. But the principle remains: Advertise! People often would like to serve, but they don’t know how to get connected or don’t know what opportunities exist. Make serving in your ministry something that’s easy to find on your church website, in your bulletin, or in other public-to-your-church-family places that are available.
ADD VALUE “Help prospective volunteers realize that their time is more valuable than money,” says Cara Rudd, development associate for Olive Crest, a foster care agency in Bellevue, Washington.
In a rough economy, people may want to give, but they don’t have the money to do it. Use this as an opportunity to communicate that people’s gift of time is often more valuable than a financial gift.
RECRUIT TEENAGERS “Teenagers need community service hours,” says Dianne Sagnella, youth volunteer director for Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. “A lot of our volunteers come because of our partnerships with high schools and colleges.”
Invest in the teenagers and college students in your church as volunteers. Let them know you’re happy to sign off on community service forms or write letters of recommendation. Many high school and college students are looking for places to serve — why not in your ministry?
USE SOCIAL NETWORKING “We use social networking sites to spread the word,” says Rudd.
Start a page for your ministry on Facebook or Twitter, and invite your volunteers to be fans. Their friends will see that they’re a part of your ministry, and those friends might just want to join in the action. When they see your ministry popping up as a suggestion on their Facebook page or as the subject of a friend’s tweet, they have the power to decide whether to investigate — and they might just click to see what you’re all about.
USE PEOPLE NETWORKS “We have a group of 50 volunteers who spread the word about Olive Crest,” says Rudd.
Chances are your church has at least one or two core volunteers. Equip these wonderful people to spread the word. Give them talking points on how to talk to others about your ministry, such as why they love serving, why it’s so important, and even brief anecdotes about the impact volunteers have on kids’ lives. You don’t need 50 people; even one or two multiplies the networking you can do alone.
OFFER INCENTIVES “Make it fun for your volunteers to recruit more volunteers,” says Lewis. “Offer incentives for them if they find you another volunteer.”
Whether it’s a Starbucks gift card or a silly knickknack, provide something inexpensive but rewarding for volunteers who recruit more volunteers.
TAP INTO FEELINGS “Many of our volunteers were transformed by a foster care experience of their own,” says Rudd, “and they want to give back.”
Evoke emotion and memories. Find out how existing and potential volunteers were touched by caring adults during their childhood, and offer prospective volunteers the opportunity to play that role in a child’s life.
GET ORGANIZED “Be ready when people sign up,” advises Denise Green, volunteer manager for Seattle Children’s Hospital in Seattle, Washington.
Have job descriptions and training overviews ready for people who express interest in serving. Return calls or emails within 24 hours. Make it easy for people not only to find your ministry, but to also plug into it.
MATCH PEOPLE AND JOBS “Don’t find people for the job,” says Green. “Find people for the niche.”
Seattle Children’s Hospital places volunteers strategically according to who’ll work best with whom. When new volunteers demonstrate interest in serving, Green considers which team they best fit. For many volunteers, the people they serve with become an extended family. The same can be true in your ministry if you’re strategic in placing volunteers together to build relationships.
SCREEN WELL “A good screening process adds a level of seriousness for your volunteers,” says Lewis.
Don’t just take in anyone who walks in off the street. Require applications. Do background checks. Call references. Even though this may seem to complicate things, it’ll actually signal to your potential volunteers that yours is a smooth-running ministry.
TRAIN VOLUNTEERS “A prepared volunteer is a happy volunteer,” says Lewis.
Beef up your training process. Ensure your first-time volunteers walk in on their first day knowing what to expect and feeling prepared. Ask volunteers who’ve served only one or two years what information would’ve given them a better start, and implement their suggestions.
OFFER ALTERNATIVES “If you must say no to a potential volunteer,” says Blanchard, “offer an alternative.”
Let’s say you’ve gotten to the point that you have a waiting list. Or maybe you need more volunteers in one area, but you’re full where someone wants to serve. Providence Ministries sometimes has to turn down volunteers, but Blanchard says she always offers an alternative — perhaps another role or a different schedule — when people could serve. While you don’t want to pressure people into serving in a role that’s not a good fit for them, it’s beneficial to search for alternatives rather than turning someone away. Maybe the person could serve as a backup or seasonal staff. Perhaps the person might even be willing to sign up early for the following year of ministry. Do what you can to find a place; if you turn the person away, chances are slim he or she will return again to serve in the future.
EXPAND POSITIONS “Volunteer positions include getting donations from businesses, researching grants, organizing events, greeting people, delivering flowers, doing office work, stocking food pantry shelves, sorting clothes, preparing and serving meals for community kitchen…the list goes on,” says Rudd.
Think broader. Not everyone is good at teaching. Maybe someone can’t get away from the house consistently on a Sunday morning but would be happy to coordinate supplies and prepare during the week so Sunday mornings are more efficient for your teachers. An artist could paint a mural on your nursery wall. Find a variety of ways people can serve so they can use and explore their gifts in service to children. Creating more volunteer needs may seem counterintuitive, but people are more likely to sign up and stick around if they’re serving in a capacity that fits them.
KEEP IT ENGAGING “We keep our volunteers engaged,” says Green.
Volunteers won’t stick around if they don’t feel like they’re needed. They won’t spread the word to prospective volunteers, either. Talk to your volunteers regularly about how they feel. Take action as needed to refresh those who are beginning to burn out, reassign those who don’t like their role, and find new tasks for those who don’t feel maximized.
MAKE IT MATTER “Our volunteers keep serving because it’s rewarding to see how a child’s life has been transformed,” says Rudd.
We’re in the business of transforming kids’ lives. Don’t simply invite people to teach or to serve; instead invite them to be part of transforming a child’s life. Emphasize the rewards. Find middle or high school students who grew up in your children’s ministry, and let them share how children’s ministry volunteers impacted them. Have your kids make thank-you cards for your volunteers. Include stories of transformation in your newsletters or appreciation events.
USE NAMES “We retain volunteers by trying to get to know everyone,” says Green. “We greet them, know their names, and say thank you every time they’re here.”
What could be more budget-friendly than a simple greeting and thank you? Volunteers rarely tire of being known and appreciated. If you have a lot of volunteers and you have a hard time remembering names, create a photo album with names and faces that you can review and reference. And thank your volunteers by name each week.
RECOGNIZE CONTRIBUTIONS “We recognize our volunteers with food, awards, gifts, and evaluations,” says Sagnella.
You may have a limited budget. Maybe food and gifts aren’t an option for you. But it’s quite affordable to print out certificates for your volunteers and award them with fun titles like, “Best Baby Comforter” or “Best Moses Impersonator.” Get creative and have fun with it. Evaluations are another budget-friendly tool that can help volunteers feel recognized. When you give them an evaluation, they know how they’ve impacted your ministry, how they can improve, and that you’ve paid attention to what they’ve done for your ministry.
GET PERSONAL “We make it personal,” says Lewis. “We call each of our volunteers to thank them after their service, and we have gifts waiting at camp for returning volunteers.”
It’ll take time, but make sure your volunteers feel personally appreciated. If you have a large pool of volunteers, create a pyramid of volunteer leaders to help you make the calls. You might even consider placing “years of service” on your volunteer badges to honor returnees.
HONOR VOLUNTEERS “We recognize our volunteers during National Volunteer Week,” says Green.
Mark your calendar now. Start planning ways you can recognize your volunteers during this week of appreciation (usually in April). You may even make it a week-long celebration by sending thank-you emails or cards each day.
Ali Thompson is a veteran children’s ministry volunteer recruiter and an editor for Group.
Karen Blanchard, executive director for Providence Ministries for the Needy in Holyoke, Massachussetts. Providence relies on numerous volunteers each year.
Denise Green, volunteer manager for Seattle Children’s Hospital in Seattle, Washington. The hospital relies upon about 1,100 volunteers annually.
Jobe Lewis, recruitment and training manager for Group Workcamps Foundation in Loveland, Colorado. GWF recruits about 800 volunteers for service every summer.
Cara Rudd, development associate for Olive Crest, a foster care agency in Bellevue, Washington. Olive Crest relies upon the efforts of its staff of 70 core volunteers.
Dianne Sagnella, youth volunteer director for Yale/New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. The hospital recruits about 200 youth volunteers each year.