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Recruiting and Retaining Great Volunteers

by Kristen Laise, Executive Director, Belle Grove Plantation on

The historic site where I work, Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown, Virginia, has four full-time staff, three part-time staff, and about 50 active volunteers. Our board members and volunteers are indispensable, and we’re incredibly grateful to them.

Volunteers at Belle Grove pitch in to prepare the invitations for an annual fundraiser

Volunteers at Belle Grove pitch in to prepare the invitations for an annual fundraiser

While conversing with colleagues, I realize that we’re a bit unusual in that we have a high level of volunteer recruitment and retention. Belle Grove has been merely continuing time-honored practices that seem right and work well. So here are a few tips that have helped us recruit and retain great volunteers:

Make it fun – Our volunteers enjoy meeting new people and making new friends. Although they love history and our site, these personal connections keep them energized and engaged. We cultivate social connections by having several potlucks a year, throwing “white elephant”-style Christmas parties, and taking trips to other history sites. It’s worth some staff time to plan these activities because our volunteers look at this as “fun” rather than as “work.” We set the tone at our volunteer recruiting event, a Valentine’s-themed dessert party, held during our offseason and advertised extensively in local newspapers. Returning volunteers bring desserts for a decadent buffet, greeting prospective volunteers with a high degree of hospitality. Rather than a dry informational meeting, it becomes a time for everyone to share experiences. Volunteers who see their service as social are also more likely to recruit their friends and spouses as volunteers. Some of our most enthusiastic volunteers have come to us this way.

Make it meaningful – Volunteers, especially those willing to make a weekly commitment, want to know they have a meaningful role in your organization. At our site, we don’t have visitor services staff

Belle Grove volunteers participate in a training with a Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park ranger.

Belle Grove volunteers participate in a training with a Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park ranger.

or paid docents. When you visit, a volunteer will greet you and, most likely, give you a house tour. Some of our volunteers remark that these increased responsibilities make the job more meaningful. With job descriptions, training, a handbook, and a mentoring program, we’ve established a professional atmosphere that encourages our volunteers to contribute.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T – One staff person serves as our Volunteer Coordinator, so our volunteers understand how much we value their involvement. Our staff also has to be open to new ideas and suggestions from our volunteers. While not all ideas are feasible, others are, and they’ve improved our organization. Many of our volunteers are retired and bring significant professional skills. We get to know them as individuals so we can benefit from their experience. Giving volunteers a voice builds loyalty throughout your organization. Three individuals who began as volunteers now serve on Belle Grove’s Board of Directors. When Belle Grove hired me as Executive Director, a volunteer not only served on the search committee, volunteers also participated in one of the group interviews (and that was a tough interview!).

Communication, communication, communication – No matter how busy the staff is, we make sure our volunteer newsletter gets out at the start of each month. We include great photos of the site, stories about what’s going on, information on upcoming events, in addition to pleas for filling shifts. If you keep the newsletter brief and newsy, more people will want to read it. New volunteers may be hesitant about making a commitment; regular communications can give them some direction. Of course, expressing gratitude is extremely important. Don’t underestimate the power of the handwritten note. Sure, it’s time-consuming (and I’m currently behind on mine), but it’s become rare in today’s world of texting and emails. People will appreciate your time and consideration and are more likely to go the extra mile for you.

Stay flexible – While a job description may help some volunteers understand how they can contribute to your organization, it may not appeal to everyone. Let people perform tasks they enjoy: gardening, administrative tasks, computer work, etc. Make sure your volunteers know what odd jobs or needs you have. Even if they don’t sew or do carpentry, they may know someone who does. What a great way to gain a new volunteer! Flexibility is also important with time commitment. We also limit our shifts to 3 or 4 hours. This makes it easier for volunteers to make a weekly or biweekly commitment. Some prefer just to be “special events volunteers” and help out several times a year, and that’s fine with us. While we’re fortunate to have a core of long-time volunteers, we also realize that we need to be sympathetic and responsive to their changing life circumstances.

Obviously, a volunteer program of Belle Grove’s size takes time to manage. But our volunteer program not only stretches our budget, it makes us more vibrant and community-centered.  And that makes it all worthwhile!

About the Blogger

Kristen Laise is the Executive Director of Belle Grove Plantation, a historic property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation located in Middletown, Virginia. Belle Grove is a non-profit partner in the Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park.  Previously, Ms. Laise served as Executive Vice President of Heritage Preservation, a Washington, D.C.-based, national organization that advocates for the care of collections. There she directed several programs including the Heritage Health Index and the Conservation Assessment Program. She holds a BA in History from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, and an MA in Art History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she worked with the History of Cartography Project.

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