How Volunteers Can Feel Good About Helping

By Donald E. Skinner

Helping volunteers to feel good about what they're doing is one of the best ways to keep a congregation moving forward. What works best?

Respecting volunteers' time is a good way to show appreciation, says Martha Osgood, membership co-chair at The Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church in Eugene, OR, (209 members). "The meetings start and end on time," she said, "even if we have to postpone some items. If folks consistently arrive late, I ask the whole committee if we need to change our times or dates to accommodate schedules."

To help members feel closer, Osgood starts meetings with a check-in. She also believes, "If you feed them, they will come." She provides refreshments and hands out silly gifts—"a large marble symbolizing a crystal ball for the chairperson, a miniature shovel for the person who has to shovel the most, er, stuff, a candle that burns at both ends for the person who had to work late at night and a box of crumbs for a person taking a leave of absence (so they can find their way back again)."

Other techniques from congregations around the continent:

  • At the Fox Valley UU Fellowship, Appleton, WI (270), all volunteers are called forward on a spring Sunday and, as a list of achievements is read off, they are handed paper flowers to pin on a bulletin board, creating a floral tribute to individual and collective beauty.
  • At First Parish, Wayland, MA (397), the minister and parish committee chair hand out "Good Egg" awards (hard-boiled, and colored) on Easter Sunday.
  • The UU Fellowship, College Station, TX (85), has recognized volunteers annually as a group, but Nancy White, president, has just implemented "The President's Random Recognition Award." Each week one or two people get a certificate tailored just for them. It seems to mean more to the volunteers, she said.

Ken Haggard, newsletter editor at the UU Fellowship of the Peninsula, Newport News, VA (91), appreciates the compliments he receives from individuals. "Rewards from groups don't mean much" he said, "since they tend to be political." Dorothy Mammen, Champlain Valley UU Society, Middlebury, VT (85),

At each meeting of the Mountain Desert District board, several district volunteers receive "Feel Good Zingers," says Ken Wheeler, district executive. The zingers are simply notes from the board praising individuals for their extra efforts. He also notes that when a volunteer team is working well together, members get praise from each other.

Part of keeping volunteers motivated is picking the right people in the first place. "I choose most of the folks I want on my committees," says Osgood, at Eugene. "I send them a letter detailing what we need, why the committee is wonderful and why they would be wonderful on this committee. When they say 'Maybe' or 'Yes,' I have a written job description for them, as well as a handbook of 'Here's how someone did it last year' and the assurance that if they have better ideas they can build on that."

And if volunteers fall down on the job, what then? It's hard enough to find them; do we dare criticize them? Osgood says, "If it looks hopeless, I am truly sympathetic (because I've been there). 'Ach, Merry, your life has taken a turn for the more complicated lately, hasn't it? Why don't you let C.J. and me take this project off your hands so you don't have to worry about it. Show me what you've done and where we should pick up, and don't worry about it anymore."

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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