As I walked through a Halloween display last fall, it dawned on me that many volunteer coordinators and managers deal with ghosts every day. Maybe not the real ones (unless you have an office in an old building or built on an ancient burial ground) but I’m referring to more of a hypothetical ghost. I am going to be revolutionary here and coin the phrase “ghost volunteer” (I think I can coin that, I googled it and nothing came up!).
Now some of you might be wondering what I mean by “ghost volunteer.” I’m not talking about somebody who volunteers at a haunted house, or even stranger, a person who volunteers in a literal ghost town in Montana (yeah, that’s a real thing). Instead, I’m referring to those volunteers who sit in an outdated Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or a folder somewhere collecting dust, but for our numbers’ sake, we still count when we run attendance. Be honest — many of us are guilty of this. It makes our reporting look great! The more the merrier, right?
But are those false numbers really helpful to us?
A few years ago, I took a job where I had to create a volunteer program and department from scratch. One of the first things I did was collect all the old information on volunteers my company currently worked with and then cataloged that information into the new system. It was frustrating to spend time manually entering emails, phone numbers, and addresses only to realize later that those people were ghosts. Their information was so out-of-date that it was ultimately useless to me.
How would I be able to connect with someone when all I had was an old email address that returned undeliverable? How long had it been since this person last volunteered with us? Would they even remember who we were?
For the sake of our numbers, they were a warm body. But in reality, it was a cold void taking time and energy away from connecting with real people who actually might benefit my organization.
Now here’s the perfect horror scenario: You’re short a few volunteers so you decide to pick up the phone and call a few people from your organization’s volunteer records. As you get deeper and deeper into your list, you realize that you can’t reach anyone. People are busy and keep saying no to your pleas. Finally, you reach the end of your list and notice a few names you haven’t tried yet; hope is just around the corner you think! Quickly, you dial the number with a cold, clammy hand because, if they don’t pick up, your event is going to be short-staffed. The phone rings once but suddenly cuts out and is replaced by a droll tone and a lifeless voice, saying “We’re sorry, your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and try again!” Your last bit of hope slips from your fingers as you scream into the phone. Now you will have to survive a short-staffed event. A story terrifying enough to give any volunteer manager the chills. Has this ever happened to you?
All joking aside though, another problem with ghost volunteers is that they don’t help us measure the health of our programs. If you keep track of your volunteers’ information, you can identify trends and ask questions like, “If my volunteer numbers have fallen, why?” or “The number of volunteers is growing. What’s spurring that growth? Which programs are working and which ones do I either need to cut or rework?” Accurate record-keeping and reporting allow you to assess your program honestly and make changes as needed or learn what is working and how to build upon those successes.
To curb the threat of ghost volunteers, volunteer managers must communicate. This is the key to warding off ghost volunteers (no, calling the Ghostbusters doesn’t count). When we communicate with our volunteers, we start to build a relationship with them. And a connected volunteer is a long-term, engaged volunteer who will want to stay up-to-date with your organization because you have taken the time to get to know them personally and most people appreciate that!
You see, look at all of the useful information you can glean from actually keeping up-to-date with your volunteers’ contact info. Volunteer numbers can be a very powerful tool when used correctly, but when neglected or used foolishly, can be turned into a false security that does not benefit the organization. Don’t lie to yourself about how successful your organization really is. Listen to the real numbers and avoid those pesky ghost volunteers!
Author Bio: Garrett Zaffke is a communications professional from Minnesota. He has been active in the field of volunteer engagement for almost his whole life but has been officially managing his program now for three years. He is especially passionate about public speaking and training. He likes to travel, Yelp, and hang out with friends and family when he isn’t managing volunteers.
Elysia helps nonprofits, volunteers and companies connect with one another and engage with their communities by crafting engaging copy and sharing relevant knowledge through VolunteerMatch's Help Center, blogs, newsletters, and social media channels.