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April 11, 2016

Volunteer Management: Are We Afraid of Upsetting Them?

[Image: Volunteer management]

Are your volunteers creating positive or negative customer experiences?

“Wow. I’d love it if we asked patrons for contact information, but if I asked our volunteers to do that, they would revolt.”

Uh, what?

This was the end of a conversation about audience-data collection that I had in Santa Fe last week. I was talking with a participant in a data-driven marketing workshop I was facilitating, and this encounter stopped me in my tracks for a moment.

Ok, I get it. Volunteers perform a useful service for arts organizations. They are usually knowledgeable about the artistic offerings, cost nothing (major point there), and are readily available. Some may volunteer A LOT, and some may have been with your organization for years. That’s all well and good, but when did the shift happen for this person where the volunteers are calling the show instead of the organization’s leadership?

Have we become afraid of upsetting our volunteers?

Just as the organization has a mission, volunteers have a mission. That mission is something along the lines of “providing service at no cost to to do needed tasks for the benefit of the organization.” A volunteer isn’t an employee or a contractor, and has no job security because there is no job. So why do so many arts administrators have a hard time managing, training, and sometimes dismissing volunteers?

I think it must be a sense of reciprocity. The volunteer has given the organization a donation (of time, in this case) and some arts administrators may feel obligated to acknowledge and return the favor by overlooking problems and avoiding confrontations. However, they do this at the risk of creating the potential for terrible customer service. Let’s consider volunteers and how they benefit (and cause risk to) the customer experience.

Volunteers are often the first and last line of contact

Unpaid volunteers are likely the people your arts patrons come in contact with the most during the arts experience. How are they representing your brand? What potential impact can they have on the overall customer experience and arts engagement of the event? Some volunteers are absolutely wonderful, and we are lucky to have them.

But some aren’t. Are you willing to risk your patron having a bad experience?

Part of good volunteer management is training to a standard and tracking results

Because of the close contact volunteers have with our audiences, they need to be trained and verified on many things. What to say and not say to patrons. What technology to use to sell or check-in tickets. How to take a donation. How to administer and collect surveys. How to dress. Whatever you need them to do. They need initial training as well as occasional brush-up training. This training should be tracked (such as in your CRM). Notes should be kept on good and bad performance so you can track behavior over time. This ultimately makes volunteer management much easier, as you are creating a record you can refer back to later.

Volunteers should take orders and be flexible to your needs

Personally, I feel the most valuable trait a volunteer can have is positive enthusiasm. Good volunteers should be flexible to your needs and the changing mission of the organization, and be ready to try things a new way if that’s what you need. In short, if you have a volunteer who is being inflexible and doesn’t want to do what you want him or her to do, that’s not a good fit.

Volunteers should never be ongoing financial donors

Working with volunteers who are also financial donors is a bad mix. You will feel the pressure not to crack down on bad behavior for fear of losing the financial donation if the volunteer disagrees with you. I’m not talking about board members who occasionally greet patrons and such. I’m talking about long-term volunteers who also donate money. It is much more clear if the person either donates their time or their money, but not both.

Volunteers should receive appreciation and rewards

Giving one’s time in service is a wonderful thing. It should create a good feeling for both parties, and our volunteers should be made to feel like a special part of the family. As part of your volunteer management program, consider holding special events just for volunteers, or recognizing their long service in some way (name tags with years of service, stars, etc.?). Reward good behavior and thank and appreciate them often.

Volunteers who don’t comply should be ‘retired’

But at the end of the day, if the volunteer is not doing what you need, with the positive attitude that you need, that volunteer either needs to be moved to some other part of the organization, or thanked for his or her time and “retired.” Don’t feel guilty about it, and don’t feel pressure to overlook bad customer experiences because of the amount of time (or money, in the case of volunteer/donors) the person has given.

I know this may sound like tough love. But if it gets to that point and they are unwilling to change, thank them for their service, and let them go. With everything you are doing to bring in new audiences, you can’t afford negative customer experiences.

Curious about what kind of experience your customers are having? Group of Minds performs customer-experience audits for cultural organizations. We send our team online and to your venue to “secret shop” your customer experience, and then report back to you. We’ll tell you what’s working and what’s not. You’ll learn what frustrations your patrons are experiencing from the start of their experience to the end, including online workflow, day of event, and post-event communications. Most importantly, you’ll learn what to do about it. Get in touch for a free consultation.