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Tips for happy, hardworking volunteers

Founded in 2001, HomeAid Atlanta is a nonprofit organization that builds, renovates, and maintains facilities for nonprofits serving people experiencing homelessness. HomeAid has completed over 120 projects at locations for victims of domestic violence, teen mothers, veterans, and more, utilizing connections with building industry professionals and community organizations. In 2018 alone, we engaged 600 volunteers in the fight to end homelessness, for a total of 3,200 volunteer hours.

At HomeAid Atlanta, we have set up our volunteers to use power tools, plant gardens, and paint rooms – often for the first time. Sometimes we work with skilled volunteer groups, but we frequently work with less-skilled people who just want to help make a difference. All skill levels are welcome at HomeAid Care Days, our hands-on workdays providing facility maintenance and repairs free-of-charge for shelter provider organizations.

Each project location and volunteer group is different, and provides a new challenge; having managed thousands of volunteers over the years, we’ve learned a lot! Among the lessons we’ve amassed:

Use local resources to increase volunteer effectiveness. Take time to look for organizations in your area that will increase the effectiveness of your volunteers, and thus the success of your projects. Our volunteers do landscaping and repair work, so being a member of the Atlanta Community ToolBank is a must for us. If you’re unfamiliar, the ToolBank maintains a library of tools and rents them to nonprofits. Not only do they carry all the tools our volunteers could ever need, their rates are great. With their help, we have accomplished so much more than we could on our own.

Expect your “signed-up” number to go down. If you’re working with a corporate group, it’s likely that the number of volunteers who show up will be lower than expected. At HomeAid, we see an approximate drop of 10 to 20 percent on a regular basis. Keep that in mind when gauging the number of volunteers needed for the task. However, when pre-ordering a meal or refreshments for the event, you should plan for the “signed-up” number of people: You do not want to run out of food for your hard-working group.

Be extremely specific and check in throughout the event. Detailed instruction and supervision, and lots of patience, make a significant impact not only on the workday, but on a volunteer’s experience. You may be great at giving instructions for a task, but not all volunteers will listen or understand. Stay close to volunteers in case they have any questions. Check in with them frequently, so that corrections can be made if needed.

Detailed instruction and supervision, and lots of patience, make a significant impact not only on the workday, but on a volunteer's experience.

Give volunteers the opportunity to challenge themselves. Volunteer workdays can be an exciting time to learn something new, but trying a new task can be intimidating. The key is finding something that everyone can do. People naturally want to succeed at their work, and contribute positively to the cause. If you can get a skilled leader on-site, plan higher skill-level jobs that anyone could accomplish with direction. Under the guidance of skilled volunteers, we have seen office workers with no prior experience learn to use table saws.

You’re the manager, not a volunteer. Understand that your job is to manage the volunteers and their needs as they complete the work, not to do the work yourself. It’s easy to feel like you should be working alongside volunteers, but your top priority as a leader should be making sure they have a safe environment, including the guidance and tools they need, in which to complete the day’s tasks.

Leave plenty of time for clean-up. Volunteers want to leave at the stated end-time, or even before. At the beginning of your event, let them know that you will need their help for end-of-day clean-up – but anticipate how some volunteers may have less vigor, or might even leave, right after lunch, leaving you with a smaller or less-enthusiastic group to finish the project. Ask volunteers to stop work and start clean-up about 30 to 45 minutes prior to the expected end-time. Set up clear expectations from the start: You want to leave the site as clean or cleaner than you found it.

Provide plenty of positive feedback, a good attitude, and fun! When people volunteer time to work for good, it’s important to make them feel good. Keep the event positive, and encourage fun as well as safety. Do little things throughout your event to show appreciation for volunteers: Pass out popsicles on a hot day, hand out t-shirts, and tell them they are doing a great job. After the event, make sure to send them a thank-you letter or email, and share event photos. There will always be more work to do, and a great volunteer experience inspires people to remember your organization fondly, tell others about you, and return to help at future events.

Jean Hilyard is HomeAid Atlanta Director of Shelter Development and Karen McLane is HomeAid Atlanta Director of Community Outreach.

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