There are new volunteers and then there are the volunteers who have seen it all and been there forever. Both types need you and vice versa.
There’s always at least a few volunteers who have been there forever…the legacy volunteers. They have tons of knowledge and maybe even decades of experience. They bring a lot of value to your team, but can also present somewhat of a challenge. Whether you are new to your position and inheriting these volunteers or just trying to figure out the best way to continue working with them, here are some best practices to keep in mind when in comes to legacy volunteers.
Show some respect. If someone has been a volunteer with you or your organization for years, give them a whole bunch of respect and appreciation. Seriously, how amazing is it that they’ve continued to commit year after year? Don’t take them for granted and be sure to let them know how glad you are that they have given their time and energy as a core volunteer. If you are newer to the event or organization than they are, then there is probably a lot you can learn from them, which is a huge asset to your team. You likely won’t have to hold their hand like the new volunteers and can trust their abilities to fulfill their duties. Perhaps they have worked in the same role for years, which can also be a benefit.
Honor their continued dedication by promoting them if they are ready. Ask them if they want to try out something new or even better–find out if they would be willing to help train and lead newer volunteers to do the same job.
Set boundaries. While you definitely want to treat your longtime volunteers with respect, you also want to create clear boundaries. Unfortunately, sometimes these volunteers are used to things being a certain way and don’t want you to shake things up or give you some proper respect in return. Be patient with them if this is something you face, but also let them know that ultimately the decisions are yours. They may challenge you in this process if you’re new, but find ways to communicate with them kindly yet honestly about what you’re doing and what your goals are in doing so.
Instead of just cutting them loose, try to reach a common understanding because deep down, you both care for the success of this event and/or organization. If you are still having a hard time, look to some of your coworkers who have been around longer than you have for advice on how to best connect with this volunteer while also standing your ground when necessary. That said, if an agreement cannot be reached and a legacy volunteer is unwilling to budge, let them know what the expectations are of current volunteers and the boundaries they must follow under your leadership, regardless of what it was like in the past. If they can’t comply with those boundaries and expectations, then unfortunately you may have to ask them to step down.
Ask for their cooperation. With these experienced volunteers, you both need each other. No, they may not need as many instructions or an orientation, but they do still need your leadership and direction. Likewise, you need their skills, time, and effort as a volunteer…not to mention some of their knowledge and wisdom gained from being around so long. Try to work to each other’s strengths and start by asking them to be involved in that process. You need their cooperation. Ask for guidance and advice when appropriate. Ask them to use their experience to lead others. And finally, ask for their flexibility and understanding as you make changes or have your own learning curve to face.
No matter how long a volunteer has been with your organization, remember they are all sacrificing something to be there and all carry value. Legacy volunteers may need a different management style at times in order to give them more freedom or flexibility, but they can have a huge impact on you and your team. Hear them out, learn from them, but also remember that you are in charge. You have the responsibility and privilege of providing vision and leadership to all of your volunteers, whether they are legacy or brand-new.