I’ve loved Gretchen Rubin’s writing on happiness and habits for a long time. To me, her advice is like a practical, actionable version of the cute quotations we see on Pinterest.

Recently, I came across her blog post, 5 Quick, Easy Habits That Have Actually Strengthened My Relationships. What a perfect topic to refine and apply to the field of volunteer management! Several clients have asked me lately: how can we improve volunteer retention? How can we better connect with our current volunteers? Let’s try Ms. Rubin’s advice for relationships, but fit to our volunteers/volunteer programs instead.

#1: “I kiss my husband first thing in the morning, and I kiss him last thing at night.”

Okay, don’t kiss your volunteers (seriously) (really, just don’t do it)! That said, can you apply the same principle to your program? Let’s try!

Idea: For one week (or one month), take the first and last 5 minutes of every day to thank a volunteer. A note, a call, a text, an email--however you express gratitude within your program. But, thank a volunteer, and do it every day for a set period of time. It’s a way to bookend your day with some positive feelings and connection--like a big smooch for the volunteer program you know and love!

#2: “Our family gives each other a real “hello” and “good-bye” every time one of us comes or goes.”

Oh, this is a cool one. Again, Rubin is asking us to look for opportunities of authentic connection, just like in #1.

Idea: What if you greet every volunteer with a handshake, a warm smile, and great eye contact upon welcoming them to a service opportunity or event: “Hello, Rosario! I am so happy to see you!” And the same for a good-bye: “Rosario, it was a pleasure to see you today. I’m grateful for your time, and I hope to see you again soon.”

Does that sound silly? Maybe a little. But it’s a really great way to connect on a human level with your volunteers. Did you know that Waldorf Schools do this every day, too? The teachers greet every student with a handshake and hello at the door, and they use that moment to learn and connect with their classroom. What might you find out from your volunteers with a regular greeting and good-bye? You’ll know if they seem tired or energized, focused or distracted, healthy or happy. For some of our volunteers, it might be a real bright spot in their day, to feel respected and acknowledged by someone who cares.

#3: With my parents and sister, I do “updates.”

This one takes a bit of translation, but stay with me.

I’ve volunteered for programs where I’ve felt informed and up-to-date, and I’ve volunteered for programs where I felt consistently behind, uninformed, and out-of-the-loop. Guess which one I kept volunteering for over the long term?

Idea: Many of us already keep in good touch with our volunteers via newsletters, social media, etc. The part that’s important here, though, is to set a maximum time limit between contact points with our volunteers.

For many of my clients, that means volunteers hear from them weekly on at least one communication platform. For others, it might mean your volunteers hear from you, at a minimum, once a quarter. Whatever that outer communication time limit is, commit to it publicly in your orientation (e.g., “You will hear from us on Wednesdays at 3pm about upcoming volunteer opportunities” or “We want you to feel informed about what’s happening in the program, which means that you’ll receive volunteer updates at a minimum of once per month”), and then keep your promise.

Too long without an update, and even your most dedicated volunteers will feel distant and disconnected. Find that maximum time between updates, keep your communication promise, and you’ll avoid that problem all together!

#4: Before my daughters go to bed each night, I spend some time with each girl, holding her in my arms and talking about her day.

Okay, another touchy-feely one. Don’t worry, I’ve got it under control! Here’s what I think we can take from Rubin’s advice with regard to our volunteers.

Idea: Rehearsing our successes is a powerful thing. Instead of leaving that “YAY! Go team!!” moment to your end-of-year volunteer appreciation breakfast, how about you take 5 minutes for a team success meeting after a service opportunity or event? It’s not an exhaustive debrief “Then, when Gary was late, we got behind, but Raul was able to help…” Instead, it’s something like this:

“It looks like we served over 300 families today. Terrific work, everyone! Raul, we all noticed your hustle when the lines got long. Demetria, the way you smiled through even the busiest moments was really inspiring! Gary, you jumped right in, and we were lucky to have you here.” Etc.

Rapid positive reinforcement, with a rehearsal of the successful moments right after a good event, means that you’re giving your volunteers the kind of feedback that will help them feel acknowledged and invested. Bonus: rapid positive feedback will buy you the credibility and goodwill to also be able to provide rapid performance improvement feedback to your volunteers, too.

#5: I send an email whenever there’s any possible reason to congratulate or compliment a friend.

This one I want to turn more toward our organizational relationships. When a colleague does something great with you, for you, or just in the cubicle next to you, send an email. When there’s a win for the group, send an email. When someone does you a solid favor, send an email. All of those little gestures add up to being a person that is known within your organization for acknowledging success.

Let me tell you: no one has ever said, “Man, Brianna always gives me kudos when I help her out or when I wrap a big project. WHAT A TERRIBLE PERSON, I CAN’T STAND HER.”

Of course not! Those acknowledgements show others that I care, I’m rooting for them, and I’m genuinely invested in being a good teammate. Even if it’s one line, or quick text, I let my colleagues know that I see their successes, and I am cheering them on.


What do you think? Can you pick one of these relationship tips, and apply it to your volunteer program to improve retention and connection? I’d love to hear what works for you!

Brianna Doby
CEO, Positive Rhetoric
Board member, DOVIA Colorado

As CEO of Positive Rhetoric LLC, I work for the wonderful folks across the country who save lives through donation and transplantation. Additionally, I provide speech writing services and presentation skills training for leadership and volunteers working in public education and advocacy programs, and proudly serve on the board of DOVIA Colorado. In my spare time, I find joy in loving my family, loving my friends, and drinking a good cup of coffee.

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