Communicating with Volunteers

26 May

Volunteers want to be a part of something great. To nurture them and support them, you want to set them up for success as much as possible with every interaction you have with them. They trust you, the leader, to equip them with all the tools they need to succeed and if that trust is eroded, over time your team will evaporate.

A key area where leaders have the ability to either create trust or destroy trust is through how they communicate. Today’s post will be a case study – we’ll break it down and learn how to do it better.

My child’s small group was invited to participate in a service project today.  There were a number of missteps in the leader’s communication to us (child and parent) that lead to a real break of trust.

First communication

 What happened: the first I heard of this project was when the group leader found me at work on Thursday and asked, with no preamble, “is your child coming?”.  I had no idea what he was talking about, so he clarified – explaining that there was a service project and that he’d sent out notices via Facebook and hadn’t heard back from my child.

Why this was ineffective: My child does not use Facebook. That has been explained multiple times to this group leader. No email was sent out, nor was a phone call made. Had I not ‘run into’ this person, I wouldn’t have even had the 2 days notice I did get.

What should have happened: Notification/invite should have gone out in a forum that the leader could be confident was seen/heard.  I have over 100 people in my teams and most of them respond well to email, but there are a few who don’t use it. I have a list of them and make those phone calls each time. Know your people! Are you leading teens? Use text messages! As a leader you should be meeting them where they are.


What happened:  After I had spoken to my child to confirm participation, I had the child email the leader asking for details including where he should meet the group and what time.  He never received a response until Friday night at 10 pm, he got a text message that said “U coming 2morrow?”  The child responded with affirmative and once more requested an address and time.

Why this was ineffective: waiting until just a few hours before the project to give details and gather confirmation really makes you look disorganized.  Even if you are a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ planner, as a leader you must meet people where they are. Most plan ahead. Change your style to accommodate theirs.

What should have happened: I should have received and email or phone call at least a day in advance with the details of the project. A week is better.  And a text message is a poor medium for this sort of thing. It involves directions that need to printed so they can be referred to.


What happened: He was sent (at 10pm on Friday night) a text (and an email which I discovered Sat morning) which said the following:

9am @ Landmark Community Church
In back.

N. Chrysler Dr. (I-75 service drive) South of I-696 east side of I-75
North of 9 mile

Because of the lack of an actual address, I had to look up the church to find a good address. I mapped out a route on Friday night to time things, and learned that it was 30 minutes away. So we left at 8:30, me groggy with sleep and still in my pajamas. We arrived and as I dropped the child off, something in me said to wait for a few moments.  This did not look like a service project and I wanted to verify that the child had found his group before driving home. Turns out, this was only the location of the registration. I had to come inside (PJs and all) and fill out a permission form for my child to participate. There, I discovered that there were Spring Serve T-shirts for sale $5 cash and that my child would likely be painting and would need a lunch.

Why this was ineffective:

  • It was hard to find – giving cross streets instead of an actual address is not very effective in these days where almost everyone uses a GPS.  If you want to give additional details like this, do so! But always, always include a real live, postal address.  If sending via text message, be sure to include a zip code. Most smart phones will recognize that as an address and allow you to simply click on it which will open it in your gps/mapping program. Go the extra mile to make it easy for your volunteers!
  • We were late – had we known that there was registration before the project, we would have arrived early enough to take care of that. So already the child is not feeling successful because he’s late.
  • He was dressed inappropriately.  Actually, we both were. Had I known I’d be coming in, filling out forms and meeting people, I certainly would have gotten dressed.  Had we known that there would be painting, he would have worn different clothes. Mama is NOT happy that he’s likely to get his only decent pair of jeans ruined today.
  • He did not have the proper equipment.  He would have loved a T-shirt to be part of the team and as both a memento and something else to wear. But we were not given the information that these were available for a fee and I had no cash.  So now, he’s late, poorly dressed, and disappointed.  Also, we were not given any information about an end time or lunch, so he’ll be desperately hungry unless I drive back out and bring him something.

What should have happened:  All the information should be included in the communication. You cannot over communicate. If you give people information they don’t want or need, they can disregard it.  You don’t get to decide what information people need, they do.  You are the leader. It’s your job to think through every detail and provide that to them. Remember – the easier you make things for them the better your result will be.

Best Practice

First Communication:

  • Use a form that the volunteers have access to (email, Facebook, txt, phone call). You may have to use multiple mediums to get to everyone, but it’s your responsibility to make sure they do! Don’t ever assume.  Go where they are.
  • Give all the details you have. If some are missing, say so, say what you are still finding out and when you’ll have it to them.

In this case study, I would have liked to have seen this on Monday:

“Gentlemen, I wanted to remind you about our service project coming up this weekend.  Please respond to me by Wednesday if you can come or not. We’ll start at 9am, but I’m not sure about some of the other details yet. I’ll have them by tomorrow and send out more information!” If you have questions, email or text me [insert phone number here].

On Tuesday:

“Here are more details about the project. We’ll be working from 9-2 at a house build in Hazel Park. There’s no telling what we might be asked to do, so wear grubby clothes you don’t mind destroying.  You’ll need to pack a lunch.  Also, I’ll need a signed permission slip from each of you. It’s attached to this email. So far, I’ve heard from Tyler, Jacob, Kevin, and Landon.  I need to hear from the rest of you by tomorrow or I’ll be calling you!”

On Thursay or Friday:

Subject: Reminder about Saturday

When: Saturday, May 26, 12, 9am-2pm

*please arrive before 9 am so you can register and find us, we’d like to start at 9am!*

Where: Landmark Community Church

1234 Main Street

Hazel Park, MI 47653

(link to printable map)

What: Building, landscaping and painting are all possibilities. Wear grubby clothes and if you have work gloves, bring em!

Cost: None, but Spring Serve T-shirts will be available for purchase if you want one for $5

Bring: Lunch, money for shirt (optional), old clothes & permission slip signed by parent (attached)

Bottom line: Volunteers trust you and feel cared for when you set them up for success.  Think about the 5 W’s: Who, what, where, when, why and try your best to answer each one for them.


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