Theatre Thursday

Retaining the Life Blood of Volunteers

Nearly all of the organizations I occupy myself, survive because of the generosity of volunteers.  Whether I am working in a theatre setting or a school setting, volunteers play a pivotal role in the success of the project.  However, some of the places I volunteer and work at are losing qualified, creative, seasoned, and hard working volunteers at an alarming rate.

Retaining volunteers is an indicator of success in the organization in volunteer management.  When a volunteer keeps coming back, it is a sign that the program is being managed in a reasonable way.  When they stop coming back is an indicator that there is a problem.

At the simplest level, volunteer retention is purely a matter of making the volunteer feel good about their assignment and themselves.  If the experience is satisfying and rewarding, the volunteer will continue to want to participate.  Volunteers need to feel a positive connection with staff and other volunteers.  Sadly, many organizations who depend on volunteers inadvertently act in ways that dilute the connection the volunteers feel with the agency.

I have experienced this recently.  A lack of organization, rude comments, lack of respect of time and skill, and an attitude that indicated that the volunteers are held at a higher standard than the paid staff, have put a bad taste in my mouth for volunteering with a particular organization.  The good feelings that I may have had about being an integral part of the process have been reduced to the point that it will be a long time before I want to volunteer with this organization.

I believe that “volunteer” is a pay rate, not a job title.  Volunteers should not be regarded as different from paid staff in any way except for compensation and the hours they spend on a project.

Volunteers need direction.  Volunteers need to have assignments clearly defined, knowing that they can accomplish the task at hand.  Staff members need to be prepared with ideas, materials, and assignments when volunteers arrive.  Volunteers who do not know what to do or how to do it become frustrated with the process and often leave dissatisfied.  I have left an organization with feelings of frustration, a lack of energy, a feeling that I wasted my time because of the inefficiency of the activities.  Sadly, I end up resenting having my time treated as of little value.  I believe volunteers should be included in some decision-making processes, especially in the theatre!  Organizations should be open to the experience and ideas generated by the volunteers.  Volunteers need to feel trusted and valued by the organization.  A person who willingly offers their precious time, will feel extremely devalued when they are given nothing of value to do.

Most of my experience comes from volunteering or managing volunteers within theatre organizations, from the public school setting, to the summer children’s theater program I work at, to a community theatre I volunteer at occasionally.  As a manager of volunteers I draw on my experience as a volunteer to craft doable assignments, provide appropriate tools and materials, and to express gratitude for their ideas, knowledge, skill and time.  I truly hope that those volunteers that serve with me know how much I value their contribution to our shared projects.  Theatre, whether it is education theatre or community theatre, can not survive without volunteers.  As such, theatre organization need to do all that they can to treat volunteers with respect and gratitude.