Recruit, Reward, Retain
Follow this simple plan and your club or association will never be lacking for volunteers. You will always have plenty of volunteers for many hands make for light work; there will be no stress, problems will be easy to solve, and it will be not-for-profit bliss. Because, as everyone in lacrosse knows, volunteering for your club or kid’s minor association is a reward in itself and as long as you do what you are told, shut up about it, things can continue to move along as they always have in the worry-free idyllic past. Anyone looking at those old lacrosse photos can tell how easy it was – it was all about the game, pure and simple. Share the game they said righteously, so they did. And all was well. Amen.
Okay, I jest, but some of that is true: I have seen that idealized vison drive volunteers away from clubs more times that I would have ever expected.
When looking at the lacrosse volunteer, or any volunteer generally, there are only two main perspectives: that of the volunteer and that of the club or organization. One could say that the view of the patron is equally valid and in certain situations, I agree, but for this purpose I am going to lump patrons, clients, players, that idealized vision, etc. into ‘the club.’
Often the volunteer is one of these stakeholders anyway and the idea of ‘changing hats’ can be a significant problem, especially for clubs that have a low volunteer count. However, when I say ‘club’ I am referring primarily to the people that are managing the volunteers, who are themselves volunteers. The volunteer stands for the individual, whereas the club stands for the collective, most often seen as the board of directors. It is an important distinction where lines often get blurred.
The three-R plan above has different meaning depending on which perspective is being used to examine it. The differences in meaning can be slight and mostly manageable, or there can be significant gaps that present themselves as problem areas that threaten the very existence of the club. Most volunteer situations I have experienced are in the former category, but I have seen the latter in action and it is ugly. Lacrosse clubs, especially minor organizations, cannot be run by 2 or 3 people and cannot be effective with even 4 or 5; it takes many dedicated volunteers to operate a successful lacrosse club. In fact, you can usually tell how well a club is doing by the size of its volunteer base, how often volunteers return from year to year, how new volunteers are accepted into their roles, etc. A healthy bottom line is more than a page full of numbers on a treasurer’s report:
“It is claimed in some clubs that without volunteers the sport would not exist. In an era of increasing professionalism at the elite level of sport, this is a salutary reminder of the essence of this sector. For many sports there is little presence in either the public or commercial sectors, so the voluntary sector is the backbone to their existence.”
This describes lacrosse in Ontario, and likely throughout the country, to a tee. Yet the quote is a Sport England report from 15 years ago. It illustrates that the high value of the volunteer in amateur sport is universal.
Why do people volunteer? There are many answers to that and a quick search on Google will give you a list of good sources. Sector Source, a group that “connects charities and non-profits with resources that help develop organizations and support the work you do for your communities” lists the following reasons for why we volunteer:
- to make a contribution to community
- to use skills and experience
- personally affected by the organization’s cause
- to explore one’s own strengths
- because their friends volunteer
- to network with others
- to improve job opportunities
- to fulfill religious obligations or beliefs
Lacrosse volunteers will recognize most of these reasons and will likely have volunteered for more than one of them. There is, however, one key reason not stated here, probably because it is so obvious and intrinsic to the meaning of the word ‘volunteer:’ because they can, but don’t have to. So many times the former part of that reason is used when discussing the club’s volunteer recruitment strategies all the while ignoring the latter part. That is, people – parents especially – should volunteer for their club, for their kid’s team, like it is some special obligation that comes when signing a club registration form and paying the registration fees. The problem here is that people – especially parents – are not obligated to volunteer and may not even know they can or should; especially those parents who are new to the game.
(Yes, I realize that some clubs may require parents to volunteer for certain things, but I see this more as an exception than a rule.)
Volunteers have their own reasons for volunteering, but the Sector Source page above states that while 47% of people in Canada volunteer, 53% do not. 47% do because they can, 53% don’t because they don’t have to. Now, if any lacrosse club had a steady 47% of their membership volunteering, all would be well and rosy wouldn’t it? But I don’t know of any club or association that even comes close to that number of volunteers. The report Volunteering in Canada from Statistics Canada states:
“Without question, lack of time is the biggest barrier to people becoming involved in volunteering. About two-thirds of Canadians aged 15 and over who had not done any formal volunteering in 2010 said that their key reasons were not having enough time (67%) and the inability to make a long-term commitment (62%)…
Interestingly, 45% of non-volunteers had not become involved because no one had asked them to, which suggests they might sign up to volunteer if they were approached the right way. On the other hand, about one-quarter (27%) had no interest in volunteering and 7% had not been satisfied with an earlier experience of volunteering. These percentages are no different than those recorded in 2007.
Not surprisingly, people who were already volunteering identified the same barriers to participation as did non-volunteers. Almost three-quarters (74%) of volunteers said they did not devote more hours to the organization because they just did not have the time. Over one-half (54%) said they simply could not commit long-term to working more hours; 39% said they had already given enough time to volunteering.”
In a paragraph above, note that, “7% had not been satisfied with an earlier experience of volunteering.” I would estimate this is much higher when a closer examination is done at a club or organizational level and this can be a very real problem, especially in minor sports where parents talk to one another – a bad volunteer experience will usually affect more than one person. Some people might not volunteer because they are not interested in having the same experience as Jane or Joe. I have met quite a few of these folks in the lacrosse world – it’s not that they don’t have to the time to give; it’s that they don’t have the time to give for the experience of nonsense. In most cases, who can blame them?
A common sense approach to designing a volunteer recruitment plan means a clear understanding is developed about what is expected of the volunteer. To me, the expectations around volunteering are very, very important and the first expectation is that there is actually a volunteer recruitment plan. How many clubs and associations out there can claim they have such a plan other than some verbal agreement or a tick-box on a form?
The second expectation is that a club has some sort of job descriptions for the volunteer positions, especially for the board of directors. While most clubs do have some descriptions in place, are there job descriptions for convenors, assistants, peanut volunteers, referee mentors, etc.? If the position is new and the work required by the volunteer has not been determined, is the volunteer aware of this? Signing your name to a sheet or a tick-box on a form only to be met with rushed disorganization a week before the season starts is not conducive to a good experience.
All of this – the plans, the job descriptions, and the manuals – the materials that define those volunteer expectations – all takes time to develop and is work for some other volunteer. Hopefully your club has a person who is in charge of organizing this, either a specific director or tasks under another director’s duties – it should be included in their job description right?
Recruiting volunteers is one thing, but once you get them in the door and working, then what? What do they get out of it? Practically everyone agrees that volunteers should be rewarded in one way or another either through recognition, a small token of appreciation, or some other meaningful award or reward. If your club volunteer recruitment plan specifies expectations for the volunteer, it mostly certainly should include information on what the volunteer can expect in return. There are likely several good reasons for this, but the best reason is to avoid the problems that arise when you don’t let the volunteer know what they can expect in return.
If you don’t have a plan and/or volunteer expectations are not plainly laid out, here is what the club can expect: parents will volunteer with the firm idea that their demonstration of work and loyalty will benefit their child directly, either as the parent being selected as head coach or their child making the cut. I don’t know of anyone involved in lacrosse who has not encountered this scenario in one form or another. This is not to say all volunteers are like this, but we all know some who are and this attitude of entitlement can quickly poison the club atmosphere, especially when this is the prevalent attitude with the club’s board of directors. What’s worse is when this notion of entitlement is used as a carrot to attract other volunteers.
Volunteering should be fun, it should be easy, and it should be for a worthy cause. While volunteering could be considered a reward in its own right, it never hurts to bestow a little recognition where it merited. Have some small token of appreciation to give out at the end of the year; have volunteer awards. A person who feels valued and respected, and is rewarded with a positive experience, is likely to return the following year.
Small, genuine efforts with volunteers pay large dividends.
The volunteer pool shrinking on a yearly basis is evidence that there may be a problem with the volunteer process in the club. I say ‘may’ because there could be other factors at play, such as low enrolment locally or regionally, or the club has dropped programming in an area that might attract volunteers (such as house league or tournament). It might also be due to a streamlining of processes, such as registrations going on-line or some other administrative process where a number of volunteers are no longer required. Some clubs go through ebbs and tides in enrolment and volunteer numbers, they recover to healthy levels and all is well. Some clubs fold.
“Together, these data mean there are fewer volunteers doing more work. This observation is corroborated in the community sport setting by the volunteers themselves. Research and anecdotal evidence indicate that one of the greatest concerns to all sport volunteers is too few volunteers for the work to be done. Volunteers have to take on multiple roles, which can be a deterrent to becoming involved, and staying involved. One of the key challenges reportedly facing community sport organizations is getting and keeping enough good volunteers, particularly in organizational and leadership roles.” A PROFILE OF COMMUNITY SPORT VOLUNTEERS, Prepared by Alison Doherty, PhD for Parks and Recreation Ontario and Sport Alliance of Ontario 2005
If a club has evidence of a problem, they should look at it and try to determine causes. If the problem turns out to be an issue with retaining volunteers, the club needs to take a hard and honest look and start making changes. I know of one very successful lacrosse club who allowed a chronic problem to fester until their volunteer pool consisted of a handful of parents. When their kids graduated from minor lacrosse, the club folded. Just like that. Resting on your laurels can be disastrous.
“Most dissatisfying to sport volunteers is working for a poorly-run organization, followed by boredom or lack of challenge/interest in the volunteer role, too much time required, unable to cope with what asked to do, and efforts are not appreciated.” (ibid.)
If your club is fine with the levels and commitment from its volunteer base, all should be well. However, I highly doubt any lacrosse club in Ontario, minor or otherwise, is at maximum capacity when it comes to people helping out. Even still, some clubs might be currently in a crises situation and looking at cutting back programming or folding. We say this can’t happen to us, but it does happen.
One cheap and easy way to gauge the satisfaction levels of volunteers is to ask them. Most volunteers I know will gladly offer an explanation of their experiences when asked nicely. In some cases it might be worthwhile to poll your volunteers, or membership as a whole, anonymously so people can speak freer and without the perception of payback for a negative response. In fact, a feedback mechanism should be an integral part of every club’s strategic plan, and may feedback should be sought more than once.
Club’s that have relatively larger and happier groups of volunteers weather the tough times a lot better. Sure, there are still people who are enthusiastic enough to go out into rinks and fields and participate in the sport they and their child enjoys, but they are also more likely to go into the community and actively promote the game and the club. It is this continual community engagement that grows the game.
One important piece about volunteerism that the volunteer and the club must be acutely aware of: the Ontario Human Rights Commission covers volunteers under section 5 of the Human Rights Code in the same way they protect employees:
“The Code does not refer specifically to volunteers, but the Commission takes the position that the phrase “equal treatment with respect to employment” in section 5 can be interpreted to protect anyone in a work-like context. This includes volunteer services and people who work without a salary to gain experience, such as people on a practicum or who are being mentored. It also covers persons who work for benefits. For example, the Code applies when a non-profit organization seeks volunteers to provide counselling or when volunteers are hired to conduct fundraising. While there have been no Ontario decisions on these issues, some British Columbia decisions found that the province’s human rights law applied to discrimination against a volunteer, under the areas of employment and services.” Human Rights at Work 2008 – Third Edition, III. Principles and concepts, 5. Who is protected at work? Ontario Human Rights Commission
Next: Part 9 The Club