The Well-Educated Volunteer

It’s April and the volunteer program leader’s mind turns to volunteer recognition.  “How can WE give back to THEM?” some of us sob, ringing our hands with tear-stained cheeks and flipping through the latest catalogue of tchotchkes.  My answer – “educate them!”  Instead of relying on the old standby of a trinket or bauble, provide volunteers with something that lasts – and that’s education.

We conduct a survey of volunteers who attended our annual recognition luncheon (I know luncheons are no longer in vogue, but there’s been a 35-year tradition here, attendance continues to be fab, so we still do this.)  I’ll never forget one survey comment – “You can skip the leaf of lettuce and rubber chicken.  Just give me an hour of education and a cup of coffee and I’m happy!”  While this surprised me on many levels (our volunteers have to get 12 hours of education annually to remain certified) it totally made sense –older adults, including those pesky “Boomers,” indicate life long learning as a priority.  A 2000 AARP study of over 1000 older adults (that’s 50+) showed that 9 of 10 recipients said “they want to learn.”  So why not educate them?

I admit I have it easy.  There are so many aspects of horticulture that the educational topics seem limitless and we struggle to just limit ourselves to 10 sessions annually.  However, I doubt we’re alone in this.  Most non-profits, congregations and other entities that utilize volunteers have a story, as do their clients, so why not educate others about those stories?  Food shelves can educate about the issues that lead their clientele to use their services; health care organizations can educate about the latest health trends or even diseases affecting their area; schools can educate about the latest trends affecting their students, or the latest trends in education.  If you stop to think about it, you could have endless ideas too.  And then take it a step further – why not offer a certificate?  Attend 5 sessions and get a certificate stating you’ve received so many hours of education and now have a “specialty.”  And then just think what those specialty volunteers could do!

Education can also be a motivator.  Tom McKee of Volunteer Power suggests sending volunteers to conferences as a way to motivate (  He even suggests that organizations budget to send their volunteers to over-night conferences.  I’d be motivated too for a paid over-night trip out of town, even if it was just toSt. Cloud. Kidding aside, I think Tom’s message is clear — invest in your volunteers and they’ll invest in you.  Studies also tell us that sharing how a volunteer’s work impacts your organization or organization’s clients, not only can motivate people to do more, but sharing a volunteer’s impact can also lead to longer retention.

So now’s your time to be creative!  What can you educate your volunteers about?  Here are some suggestions to help you get started:

  • Make it meaningful:  people give to your organization for a reason – and hopefully that’s because they’re engaged in your mission.  How can you educate your volunteers more about your mission and the people you serve?
  • Make it timely:  what’s new and different in your organization’s world?  The world is in a constant state of change – what’s new and different that you could share with your volunteers?
  • Make it easy:  we all have lots of interesting things to share, but no one is going to come and listen, not matter how interesting, if we offer education at times that aren’t’ convenient to our volunteers.  Provide sessions in the evening or on the weekend.  Also – remember that “less is more.”  More people will come to a shorter session than a half or full-day session.
  • Make it fun:  while talking heads can be fact-filled with interesting data and concepts, adult learner’s attention spans change about every 11 minutes or so.  Thus, things need to be lively.  Engage people in games, quizzes or conversation.  Make the room come alive!
  • Make it delicious:  finally, if you’re going to educate people near an hour normally reserved for a meal, be sure to have something for folks to nibble on.  It doesn’t have to be much – but at the least offer water and coffee.  Even popcorn is cheap, delicious and a little can feed a lot of folks!

So put away that catalogue of tchotchkes and put on your thinking cap.  Recognize your volunteers with an educational forum to show your appreciation for their hard work.

Terry Straub, Program Coordinator; University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener Program in Hennepin County


One Response to The Well-Educated Volunteer

  1. Colleen O says:

    Great article. Not only do volunteers feel recognized when we invest time into educational opportunities, but they become better advocates for our work. If the task seems too large (or you doubt you’d draw enough attendance on your own), consider teaming up with other organizations doing similar work. I’ve collaborated with several other volunteer coordinators in the housing/homelessness field in my area. Together we have created a training about housing and homelessness that we present regularly for volunteers and community members. It is much easier than doing it alone and I benefit from my colleagues’ wisdom and perspectives.

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