Summertime, and the Volunteers Aren't Easy


"When the surfing is good, the volunteers don't show." We stood on the sand, waiting with a small group to see if anyone else would arrive. After his comment, my fellow volunteer raised his eyebrows and shrugged, like this was an undeniable fact of life on the coast.

Almost a year ago, my girlfriend and I jumped at the opportunity to move to Oregon's coast. Right after we settled in, we wanted to do some volunteer work, and started helping out with an organization doing beach cleanups and clean water initiatives.

In a way, due to the region's moderate weather and occasional spurts of nice weather, our organization has to deal with a sort of on-and-off summer throughout the year with the volunteers. If the weather is too good, no one shows.

Fortunately, most organizations only have to deal with a similar situation for several months out of the year. A lot of organizations get a boost in volunteer participation during the holiday corridor of Thanksgiving through the start of the new year, but when school is out and the weather turns nice and everyone is on vacation, it can be difficult to retain volunteers. Even though the students may be on summer break, your good work never stops. So how does your organization prevent a summer volunteer exodus? Or find volunteers to fill the gap?

YALSA (the Young Adult Library Services Association) offers an interesting case study of one of their summer programs. They were using volunteers specifically during the summer and found that volunteer turnout steadily declined as the season went on. So how will they attempt to turn it around next year?

They plan to offer multiple orientations, in order to try to bring in fresh volunteers when the lull starts to happen. In addition, they will provide more recognition events for the volunteers. For example, instead of just a "thank you" party at the end of the season, they will offer a mid-season gathering to help combat burnout, boost morale, and keep spirits high going into the upcoming months. These types of activities are important, as it is often much easier to keep current volunteers than it is to find replacements.

Organizations can also try to capitalize on summer's advantages. While some university towns may feel a noticeable volunteer vacuum in the summer, those students have to go somewhere. If you aren't in a town with a university, you can try to reel in those students who might be returning to your area. Many universities maintain lists of volunteer opportunities; try contacting schools within a one-hour or two-hour drive and make sure that you are on the list.

And while the weather might be a factor in keeping some volunteers away, you can also try to use it to your organization's advantage. My first experience with the beach cleanup organization was a potluck on the beach at the start of summer. It was a relaxed way to meet people and get information, but was also something that seemed fun enough to do on a summer Friday. Are there parts of your nonprofit's work that could be done outside? Can you spruce up your organization's space to help bring some of that summer feel into your nonprofit's indoor activities?

If you are in a tourist destination, another idea is to promote a variation of “voluntourism.” While the concept is generally applied to people traveling abroad, and has been met with mixed views, you can try to apply it to local charities as a sort of mini-volunteer experience. Try setting up micro-events and placing information in areas frequented by tourists, like coffee shops or other local attractions. Does your organization help keep a local park clean? Try gathering impromptu groups of tourists for a half-hour at a time to do some quick trash gathering. Operate near a culinary mecca? See if you can get people to volunteer, if even for just one meal, to serve food to the needy.

You could also try to channel some of that holiday volunteering spirit into the summer months. Your organization could try a Christmas in July event to remind people that the winter holidays aren't the only time to give back. Or a Thanksgiving in the summer event, to show that the time to be thankful for what you have and to help others isn't just a once-a-year occurrence.

Creativity is your friend. You are competing with other events and activities and the weather, so you need to find a way to stand out among all the other happenings. Don't be afraid to take some chances.

You may also want to make a heartfelt appeal to your current volunteers urging them to stick around through the summer. You know how difficult it is to keep volunteers through the season, but they may be blissfully unaware. Let them know that summers can be slow on the volunteer front, and maybe some of them will be willing to pick up the slack.

However, despite your best efforts, you may still have some difficulties retaining and maintaining volunteers. It is important to adjust your expectations. In the summertime, you may not get as much work out of each volunteer, but if you manage the situation correctly, you can get effective work in small bursts. The beach may be calling; you need to make sure your call is louder. 

Action steps you can take today
  • Keep your volunteers energized and engaged. A few recognition events can go a long way.
  • Summertime mean new faces. Reach out to people who might just be visiting for a bit. They won't help long-term, but they can still do some good.
  • Channel the holidays. They may have been six months ago, but people can be reminded to keep that spirit in their hearts even when the weather is good.
  • Read this article from Charity How To: 4 Ways To Use Social Proof To Improve Volunteer Recruitment.